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Thursday
Feb162012

Ambushed

I awoke this morning to a sea of posts about Apple’s latest operating system, Mountain Lion. Instead of sending out invitations and holding a press event or waiting until WWDC to announce the next Mac OS X, last week Apple instead secretly met with an indeterminate number of journalists both in California and on the east coast and did some few-on-one presentations of Mountain Lion (the “one” being a single journalist). The journalists were then given a MacBook Air with Mountain Lion preloaded and an embargo not to publish until yesterday.

So today rolls around, and, not wanting to be caught last with the news, all the big publications posted their in-depth reviews bright and early. To suddenly go from not even thinking about the next version of Mac OS X (recently, it’s been about 2 years between releases) to being bombarded with huge articles to read, videos to watch, hundreds of tweets, etc. felt a bit like being ambushed.

For as long as I’ve been paying attention, Apple has announced products in only two ways:

  1. They hold a big event, or are keynoting at a big event, and send out invitations in advance.

  2. They issue a press release on their site or take down their online store for a few hours, then bring it back up with new products.

That’s it.

In the first case, journalists are invited about a week prior to the event. This invitation is typically leaked online, liveblogs are set up, and everyone that’s interested follows along, furiously refreshing to see the latest announcements and pictures.

In the second case, the press are given no heads up whatsoever, and scramble around piecing together the story after the information is available online for all to see.

In both cases, for us non-journalists, it feels as though Apple is communicating directly with you. The liveblogs allow you to vicariously be present as the products are announced, and changes to Apple’s website are things anyone can see. While the press clearly are privileged to actually attend events, it still feels very much like direct communication from Apple.

Contrast this with the announcement for Mountain Lion. No invitations, no event, no nothing. Select members of the press are given a secret presentation and advance access to this information for several days. Then, when the embargo is lifted, a barrage of content engulfs the unsuspecting and unprepared public; articles with word counts each more colossal than the last.

Also note that there will be no video of this presentation made available anywhere, as no presentation was publicly given. After reading all the live blogs and all the news articles everywhere after a typical Apple event, I like to watch the video to fill in the missing pieces and to see how some of the stuff that’s been written about was used in the demos. By having private meetings, I feel that I’m being left with an incomplete picture; many different articles but nothing to use as a frame of reference.

John Gruber asked Phil Schiller about this uncharacteristic change in how Apple’s doing product announcements. Schiller’s response, “We’re starting to do some things differently”, seems to indicate that this strategy will continue to be employed in the future. Gruber also speculates that the reason for it this time is that Apple tries to limit their special events to retain their significance, and that the recent iBook Textbook event and the upcoming iPad 3 event will use up their reserve for the time being. This may be true. However, why not simply issue a press release and update their website? Why all the secrecy and embargoes?

Also, I don’t know how many journalists got this special treatment, but I doubt it was more than a dozen or two. I recognize that there are constraints that prevent Apple from giving this presentation to everyone, and that even at special events there must be a limited number of attendees, but these secret meetings gave those that were invited a huge advantage on the coverage. In fact, only those journalists, and no others, are free to write about details of Mountain Lion, as the only other way to obtain Mountain Lion is through the Developer Program, which restricts members with an NDA.

Maybe this is just how things have to be at Apple now, what with the unfortunate passing of Steve Jobs, I don’t know (John Gruber alludes to as much in his post). But part of the magic of Apple is the buildup to a great product launch, following it live, and talking about it with friends for the rest of the day. If you cut straight to the end you miss out on the best parts.

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