The Secret World of Apple Product Development

Credit: Malakh Kelevra w/CC license

It’s lighter, it’s thinner, and we think it has more amazing apps… We know that the next Apple® product is going to rock our world – we just don’t know what it is yet. Apple’s campus in Cupertino, Calif., has become an Area 51-like vortex of secrecy. Why does Apple keep us in the dark? And what is this strange fascination we have with the next great Apple product launch?

Secrecy in the business plan

Apple has a world-famous non-disclosure agreement (NDA) that severely limits every employee, vendor, and partner from leaking anything – anything at all – about a product before it is launched. Secrecy has been built into both the business and marketing plans which were set forth by Steve Jobs himself. In fact, the whole company is so shrouded in secrecy as a rule that even the NDA itself will never be revealed. The Apple mystery makes for some truly innovative concepts both in products and the marketing of those products.

A different animal

First of all, the company is run differently than others. According to Adam Lashinsky, author of “Inside Apple,” Apple has a very different process for product development than you would see at other companies. In fact, the entire process from conceptualization to launch is quite different than what a traditional company would even allow.

Matthew Panzarino outlines the process for us in his article, This is how Apples top secret product development process works. In a nutshell:

1. Designers are at the top of the food chain and are given unlimited resources.

- Uninhibited by the accounting department, they are truly allowed to dream big.

2. New product teams are treated as startups within the company.

- These teams are separated from the rest of the company and sworn to secrecy.

3. The Apple New Product Process (ANPP) is invoked.

4. The executive team reviews products every Monday.

- Apple ensures plenty of time is available for each product by limiting how many it will work on at a time.

5. The engineering program manager (EPM) and the global supply manager (GSM) are chosen.

- Both executives spend a lot of their time in China to oversee production.

6. Once a design is complete, the product is built.

7. The prototype is tested.

8. The product may be redesigned, rebuilt, and retested – again and again.

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The Apple New Product Process is a document that maps out each stage of a new idea, who will be responsible for its completion, who is on what team for each stage, and when each phase is expected to be done. Originally used to develop the Macintosh, the ANPP has been used ever since to ensure the highly successful process continues.

The EPM Mafia

Because the engineering program manager and the global supply manager are given absolute and total control over a product’s design, they are playfully called the “EPM Mafia” within the organization. Ultimately, it is expected that every decision is final and done for the good of the product.

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Buzzing, but no bugs

All this secrecy in the design phase leads to secrecy in the product development and testing phase, which leads to a frenzy in the product launch phase. For the most part, Apple may sit back and watch the speculation fuel interest in a forthcoming product – meaning lots of free press for a product not even available to consumers yet. Each launch is so much more than the release of a new product – it is an event watched around the world – much like the Oscars or the World Cup. Very smooth.

Meanwhile, each long-awaited product is meant to be viewed as “perfect” by Apple’s hungry consumers. Unlike its competitors, Apple goes out of its way to ensure any patches do not make the news. There are never any upfront warnings of possible issues with a new Apple creation. Apple maintains a carefully crafted culture of “no news is good news,” even in the face of fixing bugs on the fly. Any corrections are made on the down-low, maintaining that consumer confidence that so defines Apple fans.

Despite some trepidation in past markets and a slow economy, it’s a model that is still working. According to the Apple website, they have reported the highest quarterly earnings yet, selling 37.04 million iPhones in the last 14 weeks of 2011.

The shine on the Apple

With all the secrecy also comes a level of protection. The world may never know how many Apple products died at any phase, as we will never know what is being considered or even tested. One can only assume that there were a few that died on the vine, but that is all we can do: assume. Apple isn’t telling, and their “practically perfect in every way” image prevails.

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