An Open Letter to Apple Regarding The Company’s Approach to Conversation with Its Peers and Its Community

Dear Apple: We miss you. Once upon a time, back before you got real popular, you used to take part in the public square. You may have been less forthcoming than most, but at least your employees would speak at industry events, have unscripted conversations with journalists, and engage in…

cover5_06.gifDear Apple:

We miss you.

Once upon a time, back before you got real popular, you used to take part in the public square. You may have been less forthcoming than most, but at least your employees would speak at industry events, have unscripted conversations with journalists, and engage in the world a bit here and there.

But over the past few years, things seem to have changed. You pulled out of MacWorld and began hosting your own strictly scripted events. You forbid any of your executives from speaking at any public conferences (save one victory lap with Bill Gates a few years ago). Employees blogging, posting to social networks, or offering academic papers for public comment is actively discouraged. In the words of an employee of your one of your former partners : Apple essentially bans “things that we at companies with an open culture take for granted.”

Your relationship to the press is famously combative, those who do get access start their articles with phrases like “we fanboys are pathetic, I readily confess.” Not exactly the kind of press that pushes boundaries or keeps a company honest. And that makes us honestly nervous – we’ve seen what happens when large American corporations create cultures that worship secrecy and refuse to answer to the press. It’s not pretty. (Possibly to your credit, your CEO does seem to randomly respond to emails , but so far no one at Apple will actually verify his responses. Very clever, that!)

Despite the gorgeous products and services you’ve created, we worry that you’re headed down a road that may lead to your own demise. Apple is no longer the underdog living in the shadow of a Microsoft monopoly. Increasingly, Apple is a dominant player in any number of critical network services and points of control – from mobile devices to media access, payment systems to Internet browsing and advertising platforms. In short, we believe Apple is far too important to continue its role as the Howard Hughes of our industry.

So we’d like to publicly invite you to step into the light, and join us on stage at this year’s Web 2.0 Summit. The theme –“Points of Control”- is quite topical, we believe.

Yes, this invitation is certainly self-serving, but let’s just say we’re in good company when it comes to that particular instinct, and our primary goal is to serve our industry and our conference attendees.

Over the past seven years, Web 2 has become an important platform where the Internet industry has had critical, open exchanges of conversation that move the economy forward. It’s where AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson and Comcast CEO Brian Roberts have faced their critics and countered charges of network discrimination. It’s where senior leaders at Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter debated their battle plans around real time and social search. It’s where Newscorp CEO Rupert Murdoch defended his acquisition of the Wall Street Journal, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained his approach to user privacy.

In short, Web 2 is a place where the leaders of the most vibrant industry in the world interact with 1,200 or so of their most important partners, critics, and supporters, in a forum that is open to blogging, tweeting, conversation, and debate. This debate informs and enlightens our industry, moving it forward and keeping all parties honest in the process.

Won’t you join us?

We eagerly await your response.


John Battelle and Tim O’Reilly, Program Chairs and founders, Web 2.0 Summit

66 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Apple Regarding The Company’s Approach to Conversation with Its Peers and Its Community”

  1. If Apple saw something like a drop in revenue due to its policies, it might change.

    With fairly stunning financials, I suspect the executive team laughs at suggestions it needs to be more open.

    It would be nice if they were, but the market tells them they don’t need to be.

  2. John,

    Well, this is an interesting approach.

    I have a feeling that the ears over at Apple may be…well..deaf. They’re making too much money for themselves and their shareholders, currently.

    Also, their fan base loves their products, and they don’t seem to care that much about Apple’s internal culture.

    I feel that people (or companies) that we’d like to change, need to be in a pretty high level of pain.

    Is there any pain over at Apple? (Yet)

    The Franchise King®

  3. @Glenn – I think over time the market will, in fact, penalize Apple for its approach. Not now, but in time. Nokia, Google, Microsoft, and others are forming alliances against it.

    @Joel – not expecting much of a response given Apple’s policies. But I wanted to get my thoughts out there in any case.

  4. In an era of commoditized communication, Apple’s measured approach causes their audience to hang on to every word they say. Apple is not going to change their communication strategy because it works too well for them. fredB

  5. @Fred, I agree Apple’s comms strategy is unique and adds value at some level. But Apple has always been unique in this way – the company’s secrecy culture is legendary – was that way back in 1987. What’s changed is how deep and ubiquitous it is now, and how removed the company has become from the public square compared to its past (when it was always removed, but not so deeply).

  6. My reaction to this letter, and others like it, is to suggest that customers, vendors and developers, should find an alternative to Apple’s products, or its attendance, if they don’t care for the direction of the company, individual decisions it makes, or similar.

    Unlike Google and their b/s corporate motto, Don’t be evil, Apple doesn’t claim to be anything other than a business. (Not that I’m aware of, anyway.) In fact, the company underscored this notion recently when it changed its name to Apple, Inc.

    Of course, there’s nothing objectionable to an attempt to initiate a dialogue or extend an invitation, as you’ve done. But public shaming doesn’t seem to me to have a track record of bearing fruit. (Someone correct me here in the context of Apple.)

    In fact, as the number of open letters to Apple increase, I am finding myself dumbfounded: How many of Apple’s critics have been around for the long haul, and why the cuss are they grousing?

    Particularly the developer. Given the _exponentially_ larger pool of Apple customers that the representative developer enjoys today as compared to just 10 years ago, I’m baffled as to why they are pointing out their vigorous objections, such as Apple’s decision not to support (mobile) Flash. Apple employees have busted their collective asses to hand developers an amazing opportunity.

    I’m an Apple customer (since 1986), a PC virgin, and a shareholder. Obviously, it’s in my interest that Apple takes every tangible step to make _everyone_ happy. But that’s not a realistic expectation to have of Apple, Inc.

    Despite what I stand to lose, I’m a firm believer in choice. Not only that, but I also believe in doing one’s homework.

    Anyone with understanding of the people (read person) running that company knows Apple doesn’t bend to anyone’s will but its own. A quick perusal of the company’s history dictates we have no other expectation. (Many conflicts come to mind here, including their relationship with M$ and GreenPeace, for example.)

    Additionally, working against letters like this is the fact Apple’s consumers are generally shielded from nearly all of the issues vendors and developers currently have with the company. As far as its customers are concerned, Apple’s products just get better and more desirable.

    As Joel mentioned above, until there’s a wholesale reaction to Apple’s business methodologies, or the competition steps up their game, Apple I suspect will keep on keeping on.

    I tried to make this more concise, but that’s all I could come up with. Apologies to all, Peace on Earth, and a tip of my hat to the notion that competition is good for everyone.

  7. A very wrong-headed approach, in my humble opinion, for like a reporter on the street you stick a mike and camera in someone’s face and ask for a comment. I hope Apple does not offer what you wish. The company speaks only when they have something to say. You are trying to create news not report.

  8. Muhammad: I understand. I considered the point you make. And it’s a sign of my own frustration with the company that resulted in the writing of this.

  9. Very good post and I hope others with high profile like you will follow through so Apple will understand they are becoming not so friendly to everyone except for paying customers.

    Once you live enough time in the industry you know the wheel turns on everyone and on those that are arrogant it turns very fast. I guess if they keep it this way I have a hunch the in very few years they will be very kind to everyone again after loosing the crown to someone else who just needs to be better product wise and open.

  10. Very good post. I really think it is sad that for a company to base it’s new os on a open platform to turn around and be closed about everything else is CRAZY! I also think that the current fight that apple is about to go through with Adobe is going to start a chain of other events that I feel is not going to be positive for Apple.

    I was kind of angry (but not surprised) when at release that it did not have Flash support. And now they are about to release another version of the IPhone with a front facing camera for skype capabilities, which will in the future port to IPad 2.0 (I wonder because of the upcoming HP Slate device will have these things from the beginning?)

    But all of this will be interesting on where this will lead in the future. Will apple because of arrogance go back into the cellar or continue thriving? Time will only tell.

  11. Oh, fuck right off with your $4,000 dilettante “open” Web summit. I sincerely hope Apple sees through this awkward and inept attempt at self promotion.

    Also, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that this comment does not make it past the “open” filtration of your moderator.

  12. Anyone ever thought that the aspects that make Apple unique are those that lead to its success?

    Why the heck would Steve Jobs attend an event filled with a hostile audience? Would you make attendance “open”? Will Tim OReilly make his books “openly available”? Will he give out invitations to Foo Camp “openly”?

    No, of course not…

  13. The old company used to be called “Apple Computer”. That company is no more.

    The new company is called “Apple Inc.”. It doesn’t share the same values.

  14. John, I believe you have the best intentions with your invite, however…

    You say that Apple doesn’t answer to the press and that that makes you “honestly nervous”. It’s true that Apple doesn’t hold many press conferences and doesn’t grant many interviews; it’s entirely another thing to conclude that that practice has produced a press that doesn’t “push boundaries”.

    First of all, if the press isn’t pushing boundaries, it’s the _press’s_ fault, not Apple’s. Secondly, is the press really holding back? Didn’t the press:

    a) skewer Jobs for not disclosing his health condition?

    b) criticize Apple for its app store approval policies?

    c) ask questions about labor policies of Apple’s manufacturing partners in China?

    d) raise questions about the backdating of stock options etc.?

    What are the specific issues that the press has not been pushing the boundary with Apple? And if the press has not been, whose fault is that?

    And hasn’t Apple shown responsiveness to issues that the press has raised when Apple has agreed with what the press is reporting? Look at how prominent Phil Schiller was with the whole App store approval process. Look at Apple changing its position on the pulitzer winner’s app. Here’s a quote from a WSJ article just 2 days ago showing Apple’s responsiveness: “Apple began auditing worker conditions after reports of worker abuses at Chinese factories that made iPods.”

    I think Apple does “take part in the public square” and “engage in the world”. They do so through their products, their marketing, and their actions. Their products is what they have to say. Based on their products and on their disclosures as a publicly held company, we know that:

    – environmental issues are very important to them
    – they value innovative product design and creating great customer experiences
    – they don’t want to create products at a price point where they don’t believe they can differentiate or make a quality product

    I am not saying Apple is perfect. No company, nor person, is. But i am saying that if you want them to join the conversation, perhaps you should put a little more thought into writing the invitation first. Give them some genuinely compelling reasons to join. I honestly see none in your invite.

    Lastly, comparing them to Howard Hughes is just insulting. Hughes had a mental illness. He was peeing in milk bottles, not showering for months. You really think comparing Apple to someone with a mental illness is the way to get them to want to talk with you more?

  15. As an AAPL shareholder I’d just like to state that I’m actually really, really happy with how Steve and Apple are maintaining privacy and combating the potential monetary loss for Apple that companies like Adobe, Google and Microsoft create and have in the past taken advantage of to the detriment of Apple Stock price.

    In fact, since they have a fiduciary duty to treat my share as important, I might even say that they have no choice but to continue down the path they are on if it’s the most profitable and best serving path.

  16. While I agree that Apple acts very secretive the letters fails to convince me why this is bad, and more importantly, why participating in the Web 2.0 Summit would do anything for Apple. In fact, it reads mostly self-serving by trying to attract Apple for the sake of the summit rather than otherwise, as it pretends. If Apple wants to talk to any of the other participants it can do so in private, don’t you think?

  17. I think Apple’s lack of participation actually adds to the mystique. This self-imposed social media scarcity means that when they do speak, everyone pays attention. It generates way more coverage than they could possibly create with even the most advanced social media strategy. I don’t personally like it, but it is working for them!

  18. Good luck, and don’t hold yer breath. (I suspect yer not.) AAPL has become (by necessity?) like IBM, MSFT, and GOOG in their times: brick walls to users, inaccessible, and unresponsive even to grouped appeals.

    As you’ve noticed, AAPL had no response of any sort (written or otherwise) to the many who objected to various forms of censorship.

    AAPL customers could vote with their $, but do you think enough of them would? Therein lies the rub.

  19. What I would like to see Apple do is become more open with developers. I don’t care that they don’t support Flash, allow 3rd party frameworks, keep press at bay, etc – they really need to have a higher level of public interaction with their development community so that they’re mitigating unnecessary rumors and building a strong level of trust. Something as simple as a weekly Q&A session with a product/development lead would be helpful.

    Good luck with your conference.

  20. Wired wants to promote its own conference by having Apple attend, so why not just say so? Pretending your concern is for Apple’s benefit is extremely lame.

  21. What we have here with this open letter is a classic example of human beings (emotional and psychological creatures) at odds with the overwhelming Information Age and the cold and calculating Business World. The result, as usual, is a big mess of confusion that draws all kinds of other confused people into the swirl, getting upset and saying crazy things that defy logic and reason.

    However, it’s great that so many commenters are NOT confused, so far, and can see through this ploy, but it can turn crazy at any time.

    It’s fascinating that so many people in the tech industry have such trouble understanding it and dealing with it.

  22. What is OpenCL, LLVM, WebKit, Darwin, Bonjour,
    HTML5, Blocks in C, libdispatch, macruby, launchd,
    CalDav, GroupDav, a lot more.

    All the above are heavily contributed by Apple employees.
    It is just the management is not allowed to speak to
    dumb reporters.

    As far as attending Web 2.0.
    Apple doesn’t have time for Tim O’s
    BS. Instead they work on real standards
    with real technologies and not fashion statements.

  23. It’s a nice post, but it’s going to be Apple’s way or no other way. And I kind of understand it, because Apple is like writer or painter. Why should they come to the conference to explain themselves?

  24. Nice try, I doubt appl will respond. Im done with appl and have been replacing appl software & hardware for the last year.

  25. You are correct; your invitation is self-serving. But it’s okay because others do it? In my view, this is sensationalism for the cause–to make money! I think that there are more salubrious ways of enjoying an increase in capital.

  26. “Employees blogging, posting to social networks, or offering academic papers for public comment is actively discouraged” ouch first time I realised that.

    I’ll add it onto my list of reasons why I’m not an apple fan (unix source, over priced hardware and ipod docks)

  27. Microsoft got away with this kind of behavior for years, without any public recriminations. Editors who criticized Microsoft or gave its products bad reviews regularly found themselves banned from press events and unable to get access to beta releases. It wasn’t until the US government and EU took antitrust action against Microsoft that writers and editors “found their voices” and could speak more freely about the company and its products.

    I wish that editors like yourself had stood up to Microsoft in the same way that you’re standing up to Apple.

  28. Apple has always set trends alone and did well (or not so well) doing much by themselves. They are doing it now successfully, and having huge profits. Until that changes, they don’t need anyone telling them what to do.

    These companies, the more they manage to look like a giant magic white box that you input money and receive little white magic boxes that you can’t open or understand, the better.

    They are winning money, market share, mind share. They can afford to be closed and untalkative for the moment. Meetings like the MacWorld have been only creating bad press, and I don’t even think that was compensated by any kind of constructive dialogs. They are just “throw stones at the windows” moments. So it’s no surprise they decide to put up a shield.

    Oh I would love them to change attitude, don’t get me wrong. But I undertand their reasons, and I see that it’s only natural that they remain like this until it hurts in their pockets. I hope it doesn’t hurt much when the time comes. And foolishly we will be waiting with our arms open…

  29. John and Tim,

    This is a fairly pathetic attempt to lure Apple into participation and quite frankly down right embarrassing… for you.

    Apple has every right to protect itself and the share holders it represents. You are right. Apple is no longer the underdog, grasping to survive or take any opportunity it is given. It is vibrant, creative, meticulous and yes, unabashedly controlling.

    Honest Apple loyalists understand the complexity of the company and the strict boundaries it must now operate under, and you should too.

    It’s time to grow up, Apple has!

  30. Create a villain. Accuse villain of (fill in blank). Build false controversy. Use controversy to promote your end.

    A cheap shot strategy from time immemorial. It won’t bting Apple to your overpriced conference and it diminishes the strategy’s authors.

  31. Thanks for pointing out the broken links. Not sure why Ecto started to append mailto: in front of some of them but I’m fixing that.

    Yes, Web 2 costs a lot of money. It’s a lot of work to put on. But we do comp over a hundred journalists and bloggers, and running a business is certainly legal here. Last I checked Apple’s stuff – which I’ve been buying since 1987 – was pricey as well.

  32. You can look at it two ways – we let our products pretty speak for themselves. We dont need to endlessly give you gift bags or to shill our products day in and day out. Apple is the anti-hype really. People get on stage a couple times a year and tell you what’s what – stuff comes out that pretty delivers EVERYTHING that was in the stage show. We don’t randomly drop hints about vaporware or FUD or show off concepts that may NEVER see the light of day. they only do PRODUCT ANNOUNCEMENTS. So, sorry, we don’t buy you drinks and shrimp dim sum. We are what we are. Show up early in the day – get the details, wait for the release and we deliver. Just info when it’s time and products when they are ready to ship.

    Is that so bad? Leave the over the top shill and hype to others. If you look at most CES keynotes, what are they – mere musings about pie in the sky thoughts – like another cliche ridden graduation commencement so if you want free giftbags, free drinks and another powerpoint presentation given by a nervous product manager who doesn’t want to share the stage and barely know the product, there are daily versions of this going on – NO THANKS.

    (as you point out, your note is self serving – you realize that because Apple makes so few public pronouncements, it would automatically raise the profile of your conference – maybe once your conference is important enough and not a circle **** with polo shirts and khaki’s then Apple might attend – HOT AIR is just HOT AIR no matter how self important you think you are).

  33. “Apple is no longer the underdog living in the shadow of a Microsoft monopoly.”

    Only someone who doesn’t work at a large American corporation, where IT pushes the Microsoft agenda at every turn, could think Microsoft isn’t still a monopoly and Apple is no longer the underdog.

  34. What Tim O’reilly doesn’t like is that
    Apple is not in the Cloud.
    even though they have iTunes in the cloud.
    MobileMe in the cloud.

    Apple doesn’t use Tim O’reily’s approved

    Tim has already forecast that Android is be all
    and end all of mobile computing.
    So why would Mr. O’reilly want to help Apple in any way at all.

    Corporations and Technorotti are no longer
    able to dictate what technology is adapted by
    the general public. This is their problem and lost of control.

  35. In the 1980s, the tech media fawned over Microsoft’s Windows OS for years before it shipped and worked, to the demise of competitors with already shipping products. The impact was not much different from the current continuous free publicity given to every Apple move for many years now.

    With ubiquitous free PR, the non-tech public continues to perceive that Apple is the supplier of choice, and Apple management have no need to play in the commons.

    If you think you support open source, and don’t like their closed attitude, ignore them and don’t buy their products. Your money talks.

    John and Tim, thanks for supporting open information sharing.

  36. Very unique way to invite Apple to the conference – I applaud you for that. Whom from Apple would you really want to have speak and what value could they possible add to the conversation?

    Let’s face it, Apple does what Apple wants, ALL employees toe the same corporate script. Any speech that an employees gives will be vetted to the point that anything useful won’t make the stage. In the last 2.5 years, I have had FOUR replacement Mac Book Pros so I am certainly not a fan, but more importantly I have had a bad experience at all possible levels with the company so my faith in anything they say is DEAD.

    As you said yourself John, you’ve been buying their products since 1987, multiply that by the number of other people who buy their products (and in many case just because it says Apple) then there really is not reason for them to respond to this invitation. No reason for them to add social media as part of their communications strategy.

    All things that go up must come down, and I can’t wait for someone to wipe the smug look off this company’s face!

  37. Apple is utterly irrelevant to the vast majority of the masses that use, and whose lives are affected by, information technology. Apple products are overhyped, overpriced trinkets used by affluent fashionistas who are only too happy to conspicuously consume these show-off baubles. If Apple were to suddenly disappear, not too many would notice.

  38. As a life long apple user I am embarrass by apples behavior. I really do miss when it use to be about us the people, users and supporters. Going are the days of PUG’s. Please someone help them find their way home.

    A concerned user.

  39. I hit John and Tim on Twitter over this misguided post, but figured I’d come here too and just observe that this is the worst kind of arrogance and self indulgence on display. I wouldn’t be surprised if John, for one, already regrets it.

    Apple is making wildly popular products, the best in the company’s storied history – without question – its management team is solid and its stock has been on a, more or less, straight shot to the moon since around the time the iPod started flying out of Apple Stores, on wings not made of pastrami. The company’s most important relationship is with its customers, and it is delivering time and again, with authority, integrity and, dare I say, genius.

    But, according to this post, that’s not good enough. No, Apple needs to be more “open,” they need to be attending meaningless conferences and blathering on about the ecosystem and what’s next and showing their hands to the people who chatter on about iPod/iPhone and iPad killers in a tone that seems almost aspirational. In short, according to this, they need to play the game.

    No, John and Tim, sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but they don’t. You guys, on the other hand, do need to do something.

    You need to get over yourselves.

  40. The best we can do at this point is throw all the crap that’s available and see what sticks. John has chosen some sweetened crap to toss. It might stick. Whether it does or doesn’t, we can learn from it.

    It doesn’t seem that people care that Apple held Google Voice in limbo until Google delivered it through the browser. People don’t care that Apple bans swimsuit catalogs or apps from MIT that spark kids’ interest in programming.

    The self professed shareholders care about the stock price. The proud owners of Apple products seem to care about not being called d-bags but insist they aren’t because Apple does nothing wrong. It’s a tough problem. Good try John!

  41. Please, I’ve been using Apple since 1984 and have my IRA in AAPL. Why would any sane person want to hang out with the second class rabble? Please, enjoy Apple or the rest but don’t play victim. Your stuff (Microsoft, Adobe, Google, etc.) suck. It is your choice to use it but don’t ask Apple to play in your inferior sand box.

  42. Nice way to invite Apple to the Summit, I wish they would listen. Certainly these days they don’t seem to be such a company, but their understanding of the market still impresses me. Almost all times, they do get their products right and Financials continue to grow. I just hope they correct their behavior about security and engage in public conversations actively.

  43. @Lindig – I’ve written before about Facebook. I did not instrument it correctly. Tried to fix it and found it impossible to manage. That’s why it’s the way it is. I only accept friends I know from now on, before, I said yes to all.

    @jmaiella – I respect your right to an opinion, but I don’t consider the dialog at Web2 “blathering.” This letter was a last resort, after asking various Apple employees and not getting responses, or, from those we know well, eye rolls and grimaces (many wish they could be part of the conversation that happens in our industry, on blogs, Twitter – i see you are there – and yes, at conferences.)

    @larry – er….just asking if they’d come and join the dialog. Not sure what else you’re reading in?

    Thanks all of you for commenting. Appreciate all of it and we are listening.

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