Apple watchers were in two camps today – those clicking ‘publish’ on a lovingly prepared preview of the latest version of OS X, Mountain Lion, and those who were completely taken by surprise by the news.
It seems that Apple offered advance previews of the new version of its desktop operating system to a number of press outlets and influencers, and gave them an embargo time of 8.30am ET to publish their writeups. John Gruber, for example, offers an account of his trip to New York to meet Phil Schiller, the company’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing last week.
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For any other company, this is a completely normal strategy – it’s why a bunch of tech blogs will all cover a new app or gadget at exactly the same time. For Apple though, this is completely different.
Apple is a traditionally company that thrives on secrecy and surprise. For big announcements, an invite to an event tends to go out to press a week or so in advance, fuelling days of speculation as to what will be announced. On the day, a senior executive will lead us through a precisely stage-managed show, complete with live demos and a cooing, applauding audience of employees, press, and occasionally developers. A troupe of bloggers will faithfully relay text and pictures as the event unfurled, and a tech community event is build up around it, amplifying the hype.
Of course, Apple sometimes pushes out simple press releases when it comes to minor announcements, but with big upgrades like an all-new messaging app, tight iCloud integration and Notification Center on the desktop, Mountain Lion is well worth the live demo treatment.
So, what’s happened this time? Why no big circus around the announcement?
This is a developer release, inaccessible to most of the public until later in the year. If Apple were to present it live, the World Wide Developer Conference (WWDC) in June would be the logical place to do so, as it’s focused on… yep, developers. After the launch of the preview, developers tend to be given several months to make their apps compliant with a new Apple OS, meaning that the public would be waiting until late 2012 at the earliest to get their hands on Mountain Lion.
However, OS X is crying out for iCloud integration – it will make Apple’s cloud offering much more compelling. Waiting several months when Mountain Lion is ready for developers now would be risky as consumers wondered why they could do so little with their accounts.
So, timing is a factor, and with strong rumors of an iPad 3 announcement in early March, maybe Apple felt another announcement – focusing solely on developers – would confuse consumers.
Apple’s PR strategy under Tim Cook
Maybe we’re also seeing a new PR strategy from Apple under Tim Cook – one that’s willing to be a bit more open. With a new charity program and a focus on worker conditions in China, Cook is already making his mark; perhaps a new approach to getting its message out to the public is part of his tweaks to the Apple machine too. Indeed, today saw an exclusive interview with Cook in the Wall Street Journal, showing that he’s willing to be open with the press when the PR machine calls for it – something Jobs rarely was.
So we may be seeing a new approach to PR, and it’s probably needed. As confident a group of presenters Apple’s executive team may be, they’ll never have quite the mastery of the launch event that Steve Jobs had.
Whatever changes, Apple will have to be careful not to lose the combination of mystique and rapture that makes Apple products so exciting long before they hit the shelves.