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Interpreting Apple

One of the hardest things for me as a blogging Apple employee always had to be watching the public misapprehend the company’s intentions while remaining prudently silent.  Apple is slowly opening the lines of communication to its stakeholders these days (witness the recent series of letters from Steve to Apple customers–a veritable deluge of communication by Apple standards!), but in general I think it has traditionally done a far worse job of managing its relationship with its loyalists than many ostensibly less enlightened companies.  As a result its reputation has often suffered unnecessarily.

The latest example I’ve seen of this is the consternation over Apple’s failure to seed the Leopard GM build to developers.  A lot of the negative reaction toward this that I saw on Twitter was probably, at its root, based on an assumption that is frequently fed by Apple’s poor standards of communication: that Apple as a whole disdains (or at least disregards) third party developers, and therefore as a matter of policy the company had decided to deny developers the GM (perhaps to extract more money from them?).

Well, I may not work there now, but I did work in the OS division of Apple for several years (I even briefly worked as the liason to a major third party developer, Adobe), I’m pretty familiar with how things work there, and I’m still in touch with a lot of people who worked on Leopard.  And I don’t believe for a minute that this was true.  I’m convinced that the key fallacy behind this, and a lot of other mistaken ideas about Apple, is the idea that the company always operates as a homogenous entity, and that everything it does is as a result of some company-wide, top-down animus.  The reality is usually a lot more mundane.

I have known this to be true in cases where people give Apple too much credit as well as not enough.  One of my favorite examples was a post of Dave Winer’s some time ago in which he saw Apple’s addition of a certain feature to a certain Apple app as evidence of a brilliant, fully-meditated stratagem of Apple’s to dominate a certain market.  I had been privy to some of the discussions about adding the feature in question, and my perception was very different.  Rather than coming from on high as part of some master plan, the initial feature request Radar had originated with an enthusiastic low-level employee from an entirely different team, and it was initially denied because the right people didn’t see the value in it.  It wasn’t that Apple as a whole decided that it wanted to dominate a new market–it was, at least initially, the idea of just one person operating independently.

By the same token, on the negative side, I suspect that the explanation for the missing seed (pure speculation on my part, to be fair) has nothing to do with any malicious or greedy organizational intent (or even plain old indifference) on the part of Apple, but rather with the fact that the time between the GM build and the Leopard ship date was likely too short to make an advance seed practical.  I would guess that the OS people were quite motivated to get the product in the hands of the consumer as quickly as possible (and meet the difficult October deadline) without introducing any unnecessary delays.  If the particular Apple employees in charge of seeding were out of line in this situation, I would guess it was only in the sense that they understimated the importance of such a seed in many developers’ minds in their hurry to get an already delayed release out the door.

My point in all of this, I suppose, is that when it comes to interpreting Apple’s actions, Ockham’s razor is usually the best guide: the simplest explanation is to be preferred.  Apple, like any company, is composed of a large number of pragmatic individuals, most of whom don’t have any sort of agenda beyond trying to do their job and meet what are usually pretty demanding project deadlines.  The scary Japanese guy who thinks AppleScript engineer Chris Nebel has an anti-Japanese agenda and is trying to sabotage AppleScript localization would be better off assuming that any perceived sins on Chris’ part are sins of omission.  And the people who were haranguing Apple over its disdain for developers would be more fair not to ascribe malice to something that could be easily explained by ignorance.

Of course, this wouldn’t be as much of a problem if Apple could just get better at communicating with its customers and developers.  Here’s hoping that things like Steve’s DRM letter and iPhone refund are the start of a move away from Cupertino’s obsession with total secrecy, and that misunderstandings like this can be resolved or avoided altogether through reasonable dialogue in the future.

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