Apple The Thing

One More Thing

As each post-Steve Jobs event comes and goes, I wonder whether they’ll ever use “One More Thing” again. For those who haven’t watched a Steve Jobs keynote, “One More Thing” is an anticipatory moment that the Apple faithful have come to expect at the end. Just when it appeared that Steve was done with his presentation, he’d stop, look confused for a moment, raise one finger, and say, “Wait, you know, we have one more thing.”

As you can see from that collection of “One More Thing” introductions, early in his return to Apple, Steve literally acts like he almost forgot to introduce a product that has likely been in the works for years, involving hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Understanding the reasoning for this well-orchestrated and completely manufactured moment gives you a glimpse into the identity of Apple.

It’s Not Secrecy

Every week for several years, I’d have lunch with Shane at the mothership. He and I went to college together and landed at different parts of Apple. I was in Mac OS X and he was… somewhere else. Every couple of lunches, I’d throw it out there, “So, what are you working on?” and I’d receive precisely the same response, “You know… stuff.”

Two years. Shane didn’t give me a single clue what he was working on. I finally figured out that that he was on the Numbers team, Apple’s spreadsheet, and I learned about it the same time as everyone else – at a keynote.

Secrecy at Apple is part of its DNA. Information is compartmentalized on a need to know basis, and jumping from one compartment to the next is a pain in the ass. Legitimate needs to understand the impact or direction of a product or technology are heavily scrutinized. Much of your life interacting with folks outside of your group involves a strange abstract language and bizarre body language protocol where you attempt to determine whether the person sitting across from you knows what you know:

Me: “So… do you know about… the thing?”

Them: <shrugs><furrowed eyebrow> “The big thing or the little thing?”

Me: <hopeful nod> “THE thing.”

Them: <slowly shaking head> “THE thing for WWDC or the after thing thing?”

Me: <pointing> “The AFTER thing thing.”

Them: <staring down at their plate> “I don’t know anything about that.”

Me: <also now staring down at my plate> “Me either.”

It’s frustrating and at times demoralizing, and it meant that there was a good chance, even as an Apple employee, that when a keynote rolled around you were going to be just as surprised by a majority of the announcements as the rest of the audience. But when Steve walked on stage, you forgot about the secrecy and you began to anticipate. The show started and you realized there was a good chance that your world was going to change in the next 90 minutes.

You realized: it’s not secrecy, it’s theatre.

Many companies are capable of this type of show, but what makes Apple different is the one-two punch of combining the surprise announcement with the equally surprising announcement – the product is done. In my opinion, these carefully scripted sequences of events amplify both the sense of exclusivity and urgency.

One More Thing

Imagine this: you’re sitting in your living room with some friends and for some bizarre reason you’ve never seen The Empire Strikes Back, so you’re fixing this nerd travesty by watching it. You press play, the movie starts, and one of your friends leans over and whispers in your ear, “Darth Vader is Luke’s father.”

What. The fuck.

When Steve walked on stage, he wanted to tell you a great story. The arc is now familiar: state of the business, preamble to the announcement of the product, actual product announcement, wrap-up of that announcement, repeat as necessary, wrap up the whole damned thing, and… then… sometimes… One More Thing. Hey, yeah, so, by the way, the MacBook Air no longer sucks. Or iTunes no longer has DRM. Or, you don’t know it yet, but the iPod Touch is a much bigger thing than you think.

The best stories, the ones we love, have a surprise ending. Since Steve returned to Apple, an essential part of the keynote was the anticipation of the unexpected, and that means aggressive and invasive secrecy. Not because they don’t want you to know, but because they want to tell you a great story.

It takes a showman to tell a great story. No one really believed Steve forgot to announce The Thing, but he made an amazing show of it.

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19 Responses

  1. Funny thing: I went to see The Empire Strikes Back with my brother in 1980. The kid in front of us in line said exactly that: “Vader is Luke’s Father!”. My brother promptly punched him in the gut before he said anything more. A moment of justice perhaps.

  2. Buchi Reddy B 4 years ago

    But, doesn’t keeping the information away from other groups of your own firm make them feel bad? I also wonder how come they achieve effective collaboration between different groups with this culture?

  3. That’s a great point, had never considered “secrecy in service of twist ending” before. Smart.

  4. Steve 4 years ago

    Apple’s general secrecy was certainly played for theatrics, but that wasn’t the only purpose.

    As an Apple employee once told me, when an Apple product idea is “leaked” before its official presentation, then when the actual presentation comes, the stock price can take a pretty significant hit from it not living up to (mythological) expectations. Spilling the beans can literally cost the company (or more specifically, its shareholders) millions.

  5. steve balmer 4 years ago

    Wait … Darth Vader is Luke’s father?!!! How about a spoiler alert for those of us who haven’t seen it yet!

  6. The question is, does Apple still maintain this level of in-house secrecy? So many features come simultaneously to OS X and iOS now… how could they possibly keep track of it all?

  7. For all of the fame of “One more thing…” nothing that exciting was ever announced using that phrase.

  8. Victor 4 years ago

    @Nox: the Macbook Pro.

  9. Wow! [Great|Awesome|Good|Fantastic|Excellent] post. Thanks!

  10. @Pete, in this post, it’s only mentioned an employee works on numbers. I’ve never used Numbers personally, but it doesn’t seem like it has much business with the rest of apple.

  11. One more adjective 4 years ago

    @ERIC SHUPPS

    Don’t forget [beautiful|just beautiful|really beautiful].

  12. When did secrecy and theater become part of Apple? Was this Steve’s vision in the 80s? Was it nurtured and perfected in the 2000s?

  13. Kevin Crossman 4 years ago

    Oh my god. Whoever wrote the Steve Balmer comment above deserves some sort of award. Seriously. So funny.

  14. David 4 years ago

    Of course Steve was a great showman and storyteller. He well understood one of the fundamental principles of great storytelling: Exposition. That is, not telling your audience anything that they don’t absolutely need to know — until they absolutely need to know it.

    This sense of theatre extended to how he’d show off new products to Apple board members or the lucky few who got a sneak preview. He would cover the new product with a black cloth and then – when everyone was good and ready and salivating – unveil it. And so it was with his keynotes. Each such curtain lift made us feel a revelatory “Boom!” without him having to say it.

    The End

  15. Tony Hawk 4 years ago

    Jesus, I understand you love Apple and their products, but you’re turning into such a fanboy it’s becoming pathetic.

  16. I didn’t know Jesus was an Apple fanboy. 🙂

  17. I always equate Steve’s approach to introducing products to stories my dad told me about when he was a kid. He loved cars as a kid and he would go into town and hangout at the local car dealership waiting for the new year shipment of cars to come into the lot. He made it sound like he would spend a lot of time gawking at the cars for several weeks after they arrived. To this day he knows the make and model of nearly every American car from 1930-1964 with out seeing any model markings on the cars. My point is that Steve would make us enthusiasts by tapping into are love for anticipation. Anticipation of new products is a hard thing to create in the information age. That moment my dad saw the the new cars roll in he had little to no fore knowledge of what he would see and it would make the experience so much more impactful.

  18. Next iPhone launch, the last project Jobs was working on by all accounts, Schiller uses the phrase “One _last_ thing” to reveal that Steve Job’s signature has been etched inside the backplate of the ‘phone.

  19. Henk Poley 4 years ago

    I think of Apple’s internal secrecy as a way to virtualize many companies within one company. What are your thoughts on that?