Apple, J.D. Salinger, and the Art of Secrecy

For the past number of years, probably really ratcheting up with the introduction of the iPhone, Apple has been at the center of the tech world. Blogs, news sites, rumor sites, comments, and tweets have all created a cacophony of noise surrounding Apple. It’s an endless stream of information that ranges from hard news to absurd speculation, from fawning praise to complete vitriol. Amongst this whirlwind of attention, I find the most fascinating thing is how little Apple itself takes part in any of this.

Most companies, especially tech companies, are very public and want to engage in as much PR as possible. You can see this when they announce products months if not years in advance, trying to drum up interest, even if some of those products simply become vaporware. Think of the original HP Slate, which was announced with much fanfare but released with a thud ten months later, or Google Glass, which although being heavily promoted by Google has seen its release date pushed back into 2014. Apple is different though, and absolutely refuses to comment on any future products until they formally announce the product and it’s ready to ship.1

Usually, Apple will hold three or four events a year, which they strictly control. In recent years it has been an iPad event, an iOS event at WWDC, an iPhone event, and maybe another special event to announce something like their education initiative or new Macs. At these events they almost always have the product ready to show off, and have a set price and release date that is usually no more than a month away. Aside from these special events, they give very few press releases or engage the press in any way.

Yet, they remain firmly at the center of the tech news cycle and any story about Apple gets talked about to death. A few months back a simple story that Apple might be working on a watch was featured on every tech site, and even larger non-tech news sites picked up the story and ran with it. This wasn’t an actual product, or even an announcement of a future product by Apple. It was a rumor about an unverified product Apple might release at some indeterminate time in the undefined future. Yet, it got more press than its competitors get when they formally announce a real product.

That is the mystery, how can a company say so little, and yet get so much attention?

I think the main reason comes down to basic human nature – the less we know about something, the more mysterious it becomes, and the more we want to know about it. I sometimes refer to this as the ‘J.D. Salinger phenomena.’ J.D. Salinger wrote a single novel that was published in the 1950s, and then a few years later went into seclusion and never published another word, or spoke to the press, until the day he died. Yet, everyone knows who he is, Catcher in the Rye is still well known, and his celebrity lives on sixty years later. But his celebrity is entirely based around the mystery of J.D. Salinger. What went on for those decades he was in seclusion? Did he write more novels? Did he write things greater than Catcher in the Rye? These questions spur people’s imagination and make Salinger more interesting and more lasting as a public figure. Ironically, if he had continued publishing books, doing interviews, making speeches, etc… he might be completely forgotten today.

Apple operates the same way, veiling themselves in secrecy and having everyone else do the talking for them. But unlike Salinger, they actually release their products to the public. That is where they get the best of both worlds. They harness the power of secrecy, and realize that by remaining silent about products, the mystery about those products only grows to exponential levels. But then they pay it off by actually releasing great products which people actually love. If they simply had mystery and no products, it wouldn’t work. If they had great products but no mystery, they wouldn’t get near the amount of press. But by having both, they have become the most valuable tech company in the world.

I think Apple is unique in this regard, and if other companies tried to emulate their secrecy it wouldn’t work. The main reason being the products they would release in no way could live up to the hype that this type of secrecy brings. That’s the burden of secrecy – when people finally discover the secret, it’s almost impossible to live up to what people had envisioned in their heads. I’ve always had the theory that this is one of the reasons J.D. Salinger never published another novel throughout all those decades. He realized the expectations of any second novel had grown to unrealistic levels over the years, and he could never live up to those expectations. Therefore, he choose to simply not publish anything.

Apple has to face this burden for every product it announces, and you will always see stories after an Apple event that the products didn’t live up to the expectations. It’s a tenuous rope for Apple to walk, because they on the one hand are stoking the hype by being secretive, but on the other hand don’t want the backlash when the products don’t live up to the hype. So far I think they’ve been able to manage this situation fairly well, mostly by continuing to make great products. While these products may not be the fantastical time traveling, flying car visions people create in their heads, they still are far and away superior to most of the competition. As long as they keep that quality up, they can continue harnessing the power of secrecy and using it to their full advantage.

1. UPDATE: Since writing this article Apple did make an exception and announced the redesigned Mac Pro at the June WWDC event, even though it was not released until six months later.


3 thoughts on “Apple, J.D. Salinger, and the Art of Secrecy

  1. I’m always reminded of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Apple is like that – this really secretive company that makes products everyone loves. The CEO (definitely back in the Steve Jobs era) makes the rare public appearance and everyone loses their shit over it. But I would agree that this is what makes them so successful.

  2. Hey Linus,Just discovered your blog and I’m happy I did since we both seem to write personal non-personal blogs(, if that makes any sense).I think the ‘J.D. Salinger phenomena’ does have its effect on the Apple media craze, but I don’t think it’s the primary reason Apple gets so much buzz without trying. I think the primary reason for that is the dedicated, ever-growing base of loyal users, fanboys (not in the negative context). Apple has done such a great job in entrenching its’ brand in our personal life — mainly through the iPhone — that many feel a <em>need</em> to talk about rumors, speculate alongside the crowds, and try to predict what their next gadget might look like.

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