Apple is known for its penchant for secrecy. Products are developed as top-secret projects and unveiled to the public with great fanfare. This has brought it tremendous benefit, for example with during the dramatic launch of the iphone by Steve Jobs (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vZYlhShD2oQ#t=2m20s). However secrecy carries costs, and in some cases the costs outweigh the benefits. Yet Apple retains this approach across a whole range of its products; secrecy is apparently “baked into the corporate culture” (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/23/technology/23apple.html). Consider Aperture 3.0, the newly updated photo-management product by Apple aimed at professional photographers. It was launched last week following Apple’s usual “secret till the last minute” approach. It is instructive to compare Aperture to Lightroom, a very similar product by Apple’s rival Adobe which has taken a very different approach.

There have been two effects of the secrecy surrounding Apple’s Aperture 3.0. First, the direct effect of launching poorly-tested software. Twitter and the Apple forums are full of complaints by anguished customers who have been unable to upgrade older photo libraries (e.g., http://discussions.apple.com/thread.jspa?threadID=2331026). No doubt there is a selection bias and users with a trouble-free experience are less likely to visit these forums and complain. But this is hardly the “awesome” and polished experience that is expected from Apple, a company that uses “it just works” as a tagline. Among the reports are complaints by customers whose computers have totally frozen during the upgrade, those who succeeded in upgrading but then found it unstable, and those who gave up but were unable to reinstall earlier versions of that software. It is clear from these reports that Aperture 3 was insufficiently tested before being sold, especially against real-world photo libraries in use by existing users.

A second effect of secrecy is that professionals have been increasingly adopting Adobe Lightroom. While the buzz of unveiling a new product may matter for consumer-oriented products like the iphone or ipad, Aperture is aimed at professional photographers, design companies and media organisations. For this audience, surprise may be less important and even counterproductive. Instead , advance knowledge of upcoming features and a stable product at launch time are probably more important. These allow the client to anticipate changes and plan for its integration into existing workflows and business processes.

In contrast to Apple, Adobe has taken a different approach with Lightroom. In October last year it launched the new version as a public beta, available for anyone to download and try for free (the software expires automatically at the launch of the actual product). The public beta gives Adobe precious information from real-world customers on a massive scale. In addition, customers are able to experiment with features likely to be included in the final version, rather than being kept in the dark with no way to anticipate and plan their own businesses around Adobe’s roadmap. Lightroom has its share of detractors, but generally the response online has been positive. The important thing to point out is that Adobe isn’t one of these “open source” players. Lightroom is commercial software that is quite expensive and the guts of the software are heavily protected. However, by being less secretive than Apple, Adobe is able to engage better with its customers. This applies not just to the public beta: in earlier versions of Lightroom, Adobe took a more open stance towards allowing third-party plugins and introducing user-created presets.

Looking more broadly, my sense is that Apple’s secrecy is costing it not just with Aperture but also with other recent product launches. For example, iPad developers are in a scramble to develop software for the new device which ships in about 2 months. Apparently even Apple’s close allies were introduced to the iPad just weeks before it was publicly announced. Even Apple’s new Snow Leopard operating system had its share of bad surprises after it was launched, causing some cases of data corruption. To this day, none of my colleagues are able to print from it to our enterprise-quality printer down the hallway using the Safari web browser or the Preview tool without causing the software to crash. The lesson to be learnt is that while secrecy may be useful for some products, firms (including Apple) should revisit the question as to whether they need to be secretive across all their products.

Do share your thoughts and comments on our discussion board.

—- update on 17 March 2010

A quick update – after writing this article I received a surprising number of emails. Quite a few photographers and media professionals wrote to say they agreed with my perspective. A few disagreed, including some folks who said Adobe also had its share of problems. A few people also wrote to complain that I am biased and “anti-Apple”; I contend this is untrue seeing that I personally own a lot of Apple products.

A couple of people asked what the benefits were of secrecy, and to give a quick answer, it generates greater consumer buzz when the product is launched (as mentioned). In addition, secrecy is one of the mechanisms by which firms attempt to protect intellectual property (e.g., the oft-told story of Coca Cola’s secret recipe). Keeping something secret may also help prevent competitors from hiring the relevant people to develop similar products, although this is controversial as it depends on how scarce the relevant skills are. I hope this helps give my article some balance. I’m not saying secrecy is bad in general, but that it should be used when appropriate. It may be somewhat less effective for professional rather than consumer products, especially software which involves network effects and benefits from a cohesive developer community.

A spokesperson from Apple wrote to me to say that a number of photographers did work with Apple on the beta prior to launch (but as I understand it from people in the industry, this was a private beta and a non-disclosure agreement was involved). Apple also said many of the issues have been addressed in a recent upgrade to the software, and they dispute the market share data used by John Nack which I linked to in my article. They also made a few other points. I am sharing this so that their view is represented and they are welcome to post a reply too, however I don’t think it takes away from the main points of my article. Subsequent to my post, I learnt that Apple’s secrecy was also a concern raised by various photography blogs (e.g., http://photofocus.com/2010/02/17/aperture-3-0-very-cool-but-not-ready-for-prime-time/). Moreover, the extensive fixes that were made soon after Aperture’s release shouldn’t have been needed in the first place if the software had been properly field-tested. Fundamentally, secrecy means missing out on engaging with the professional community and developers in an extensive way prior to the product’s launch. That is the price to pay, and while in some cases this is worthwhile, in other cases its not always a net benefit.

Tagged with →  

4 Responses to Is Secrecy Always A Good Thing? The Tale of Apple Aperture vs Adobe Lightroom

  1. dr faustus says:

    I’m an unapologetic Apple fanboi, and I think your conclusions are spot-on. I’ve heard similar reasons being suggested for the lack of success Apple has in the corporate world (admittedly, Apple doesn’t seem particularly interested in that market). Microsoft makes sure it’s important customers (people making the decisions about corporate deployments) know about its plans literally years in advance (although some of those years are due to products running late), because it takes a lot of time to test and make sure everything works. Apple does have betas (such as with its operating systems), but they’re very closed and secretive – all locked up under NDAs (which inevitably get broken anyway).
    And I think you’re also correct in that it’s more to do with an entrenched culture of secrecy than any logical reason. You can understand why they might want to keep something like the iPad under wraps, but the same silence about things like like cameras they’re RAW importer is going to support is just madness. Government bureaucracies tend to get stuck in this pickle too – they develop a culture of secrecy, and secret becomes their default position, so even information that is better disseminated requires a crowbar to get it out of them (of course governments have the added incentive that secrecy is a great strategy for avoiding accountability).

  2. Jacques Chester says:

    As a small aside, a substantial part of Lightroom was developed with a nifty programming language called Lua — which is opensource.

  3. Kwanghui Lim says:

    Dear Jacques and dr faustus, thanks for sharing your thoughts.
    BTW by coincidence Reuters just posted this article on secrecy at Apple looking at how it affects suppliers. Pretty interesting: http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE61G3XA20100217

  4. Hey guys, thanks for looking at this from an economic point of view. I’m the director of the Aperture Users Network, so Apple’s policies really touch every facet of my business.
    I wanted to make a few points—first, I think that Adobe’s openness is really a facade. Adobe released a “public beta” in october, but since has been utterly silent on it. They haven’t released any information about LR 3 in six months. That’s not really communicating with customers, it’s using a public beta, a product that’s clearly a non-finished version of their software in order to make a play at Apple’s customers who were upset at secrecy issues.
    If Adobe were really communicating, they’d regularly update their beta, talk about the goals and new features in the product and release support for new cameras. They haven’t done any of this. There’s no ETA for release, no updates to the beta, no feedback from them.
    Whether or not a program is released with issues (and Aperture was, but was rapidly addressed) has nothing to do with a beta program. It has to do with the product launch schedule for that software. That’s just part of software development—things go out the door and then they’re addressed or they live perpetually in development. Look at Google’s myriad “beta” tools and you’ll see a good example of that.
    While I wish Apple were more communicative, it’s not any more secret than anyone else in the photo space. Nikon and Canon don’t announce new cameras before they put them on the market. Aside from major issues like the Canon 5D Mark II firmware update of recent where they chose to pre-announce it, they hardly talk about bug fixes.
    But the Canon issue is a perfect example of why tech companies are secretive. Canon announced the 5D firmware for “Mid March” and then got it out the door, only to recall it a few days later.
    Lightroom too suffered from this, despite the “betas” and openness the company supposedly espouses. One release of LR was damaging user’s data and had to be pulled.
    Apple is no-doubt uber-secret in their development, more so than anyone else in the space, but that’s their model and it works well for them in some of their business lines and less well in others.
    About Jacques comment about Lua being open source—this really has nothing to do with the openness of a piece of software. First, big portions of Lightroom were NOT developed in Lua and second an open source programming language doesn’t have any bearing on the openness of the company using it.
    Apple, after all, writes its documents in English, about as open source as you can get, that doesn’t make their memos and emails somehow available to people.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: