Former Apple engineer Jens Alfke believes Apple’s external image has been polished until featureless. The restrictive staff blogging policies, the veil of secrecy around future plans and a carefully orchestrated three-person spokes-team of Jobs, Schiller and Ive lead to a very impersonal closed business.
It certainly wasn’t always this way. The original Mac team appeared in Rolling Stone magazine with credit in about boxes, a practice that was continued at NeXT but abolished by Mac OS X Beta. Jobs makes regular comparisons between engineers and artists and touted individual thinking in the Think Different campaign and artists like recognition with signatures on art and credits on film.
Conversely Apple’s Mac OS X operating system is built on open software and standards. The kernel is derived from open elements bundled up as Darwin which Apple provides back along with compilers, debug tools, programming language, command line tools, Bonjour, device driver kit and a bunch of drivers. All are open.
The web rendering technology in Safari (WebKit based on KHTML) is also open and changes rolled back to the communities often reveal unannounced insights into Apple’s plans (e.g. Safari for Windows).
And yet how many engineers write or talk about Apple? Do you know the names of any product managers? Could you find any out with Google? (LinkedIn doesn’t count ;-)
These aren’t academic questions, what if you have a great idea for a feature you’d like to see added? How can you discuss how a product could evolve to fit your needs? What about a simple bug report or advanced access to technology? (The answers are “send it to firstname.lastname@example.org and don’t hold your breath”, “you can’t” and “join the developer program”)
Heaven forbid you do actually find out what their plans might be – you could find yourself talking to their lawyers like the ill-fated ThinkSecret site that featured rumors, speculation and the occasional insider info.
Jens makes a passing mention to Microsoft’s relaxed blogging policies.
Microsoft is a company that rarely provides the source, never ships or builds upon existing free software and yet not only discusses plans and road-maps but actively solicits feedback in the design process through conferences, user groups, forums, mailing lists and even on-site review teams. Employees such as Scott Guthrie and Brad Abrams have become quite well known within .NET communities often being the first to break announcements and provide quick feedback through their blogs.
But they aren’t the only ones reaching out.
Microsoft’s HR & recruiting team and individuals are also putting up interesting insights and thoughts on how the company operates and head of the Xbox Live! is so active in this area that the name Major Nelson is known to any serious 360 owner.
How strange that Apple embraces open technologies yet keeps communication closed and Microsoft’s technologies are still quite closed yet communication is very much open.
What does it mean to be open and where will each company’s approach lead them?