Why Apple's secretive approach is so effective
That Apple (Inc, no longer Computer) likes to keep the details or even existence of upcoming product releases close to its chest is a given within the technology industry.
Yes, there were loads of people who were sure last year that Apple would launch a mobile phone product; but barely any outside the company itself who knew what it would look like. (Even the head of AT&T, its network partner, only got to see it late in the development process.)
To most journalists, struggling to make sense of quite where a new product such as the MacBook Air fits into the wider matrix of Stuff You Can Already Buy can be frustrating, because the abruptness with which such things appear leaves little time for sensible reflection. (Thank goodness for leaky film studios willing to tell us that film rentals were coming, at least to the US.)
By contrast, companies like Microsoft and Dell like to tell everyone well ahead of time what they're going to do. I can't recall the last time a Bill Gates speech led anyone to hold a middle, let alone front, page.
Now it turns out that there may be very deep reasons why Apple's secretive approach entices us so, and Microsoft's doesn't. It's this: pre-release hype makes people much more careful about what they buy.
If you tell them that something is coming at some point in the future, they will evaluate everything that's out there very carefully. But if you just drop something into their laps, all they'll think about is the brand. And if they like that, ker-ching!
That's the implication of some research done by Susan Grant of the University of Colorado at Boulder and Alice Tybout, of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.
The work - nattily titled The Effect of Temporal Frame on Information Considered in New Product Evaluation: The Role of Uncertainty - will appear in the April issue of the Journal Of Consumer Research.
Now, Grant and Tybout's experiments dealt not with computers or software, but a new (fictional) Coca-Cola ketchup, and an (imaginary) Swiss beer. But they knew who they really meant.
"When the product launch was in the future, consumers paid attention to both the strength of the brand launching the new product (ie, Apple) and to marketplace conditions," says the press release.
However, when the product had already been released, evaluations of the item were only based on perceptions of the company. That is, you see it and, if you're keen on the brand, reason flies out the window.
This could explain the peculiar behaviour of some Apple fans, who will order something the moment Steve Jobs unveils it. Like Apple? You'll love the new Apple Electric Dog Polisher - it's the world's thinnest!
But this process also works in the other direction, with products that are hyped and announced and hyped and pushed to an apparently uncaring world. Microsoft used it years ago with vapourware to great effect to stifle sales of rivals' existing products. But it also bit Toshiba and led to the demise of HD DVD, which has just ceded the market to Sony's Blu-ray high-definition format.
The problem both formats had was that they announced that they were coming to a TV near us really soon until we were sick of it. In the end, Sony had the better strategy, with its PlayStation 3 as a Trojan horse for Blu-ray and its persuasion of Warner Brothers to shift format (I'm sure there's a fascinating story to be told about how that happened).
So the message for the technology industry should be clear: no more pre-announcements. In future, surprise us.
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