Apple's obsession with secrecy is legendary. For all the rumors and leaks that stoke media attention, very rarely do we have a clear picture of a new product until Steve Jobs comes out on stage and shows it to us. Even people who work for Apple often have very little idea what the company is up to; retail employees at Apple Stores usually don't know any more about upcoming products than anyone else, and retail managers have told me the first clear picture they get of new products is when they arrive on a truck. Even people who work in Apple R&D on products like the iPad operate in a "cone of silence," with security measures in place at Cupertino's labs that sound like something out of a James Bond film. And last year, an employee of Chinese supplier Foxconn allegedly leapt to his death to avoid further interrogation after he "lost" an iPhone prototype.
A new report from Reuters offers more insight into Apple's cloak and dagger world. Confidentiality agreements are only the beginning when it comes to Apple's tactics with its overseas suppliers. Apple contacts suppliers at the last minute, often only weeks before a product's release, and provides information about its products on a strict "need to know" basis. Apple also divides its projects between multiple suppliers, meaning that for a product like the iPhone, no one supplier is responsible for producing or assembling all of its components. As a result, even most of the people who are standing on the assembly line making Apple's products have no idea what they look like when they're finished. Only a handful of very closely monitored workers are responsible for final assembly. Apple also has a unique vetting process for its contractors: it will switch up product suppliers occasionally, issuing them different products, all in the name of hunting down and squashing leaks. Well, that and an attempt to thwart cheap knockoffs -- a somewhat common practice in certain parts of the manufacturing world.
One South Korean supplier has stated Apple makes "unreasonable requests." The company's demands for customization in its designs means suppliers are left with equipment and components that can't be used for other clients, and excess inventory cannot be repurposed.
The Reuters report paints a very dark picture of Apple's relations with its suppliers. The company has its reasons for being secretive, some of them more valid than others, but it seems incredibly ironic that the same company who satirized George Orwell's 1984 in their iconic Super Bowl commercial now employs the same sort of police-state tactics with both its own employees and its overseas contractors. As much as I enjoy using Apple's products, reports like the one from Reuters make it hard for me to like the company itself.
Read the Reuters report for yourselves, and then let us know how you feel about Apple's obsession with secrecy in the comments.