Several items this week highlighted Apple's obsessive focus on secrecy, from hiding iPad-related shipping data to refusing to release the racial and gender makeup of its workforce. While the strategy has obviously paid off so far, is Apple's secrecy savvy, or pathological?
We saw reports this week on Apple's success at concealing iPad shipping data, and the extent to which a supplier goes to keep trade secrets and employees within its Chinese supplier's "walled city." Apple, along with four other tech giants, also convinced regulators to deny The Mercury News' request for diversity data because it could cause "commercial harm."
The company's desire to hide its shipping data supposedly stems from the media reports that accurately predicted the arrival of the iPhone 3G thanks to customs data and a lot of educated reasoning. But the available customs data was hardly revealing -- it described the cargo as "electric computers." That might be useful in conjunction with other reports of Apple's plans, but on its own it reveals little. The customs data does include manufacturer sources for the shipments, but it's no secret that one of its major suppliers is Foxconn, which is the preeminent global supplier of electronics and computer components.
Secrecy certainly can have some ugly real-world consequences. Last July, a Foxconn employee killed himself shortly after losing an iPhone prototype and recently a Reuters reporter was assaulted while photographing Foxconn's Chinese plant from the street. A guard kicked him in the leg, the police were called, and the reporter was allowed to leave, but such incidents can easily turn into public relations nightmares.
On Thursday, TechCrunch's Michael Arrington suggested that it might be time for a boycott of Foxconn and its customers.
Maybe it's time we started to hold those companies that do business with Foxconn - Apple, Sony, HP, Amazon, Nokia, Motorola, Nintendo, Microsoft, Dell, Cisco and other, responsible. By not buying products produced by Foxconn. Because next time someone (else) may end up dead after an interaction with Foxconn.
In the case of the San Jose Mercury News' attempt to flush out diversity data, Apple's knee-jerk instinct for secrecy seems particularly pointless, and this time it was joined by Silicon Valley peers Google, Yahoo, Oracle and Applied Materials. Concealing the racial and gender breakdown of employees is doesn't increase demand for the next must-have iPad. It's just an unusually clumsy blunder in the public relations battle that Apple is intent on fighting on its own terms.