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How Apple’s obsession with secrecy hurts its software

Published Oct 30th, 2015 1:02PM EDT
Apple Product Secrecy

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When it comes to product secrecy, you’d be hard pressed to find a company more obsessed with keeping things under wraps than Apple. In one of the more famous examples, former Apple executive Scott Forstall, when recruiting engineers for the original iPhone team and didn’t even tell prospective team members what they’d be working on. Similarly, when Apple hired former Adobe CTO Kevin Lynch to work on the Apple Watch, Lynch didn’t even know what product he’d be working on until he actually signed an employment contract.

While Apple’s preoccupation with product secrecy may be beneficial in some respects, a new report from Bloomberg relays that it can also adversely affect the company’s ability to recruit top AI scientists, ultimately resulting in software that isn’t always best in class.

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Whereas AI scientists from almost every other company, including Google and Microsoft, often attend any number of annual conferences to share their latest AI research and discuss some of the more interesting and promising advancements in the field, AI researchers from Apple are nowhere to be seen.

The result is that Apple finds itself completely isolated, by choice, in a field where open relationships and collaboration with peers is extremely important. Consequently, Apple’s software from an AI perspective can lag behind software from more open companies.

Other big consumer-software companies have set up research centers staffed with dozens or hundreds of AI experts from around the world, racing to publish findings. The fast-paced culture has produced Google algorithms that can more accurately transcribe speech and tag photos; personal assistants that are smarter than Siri, such as Microsoft’s Cortana and Google’s Now; and Facebook software that can tell blind users what’s in their friends’ photos.

Meanwhile at Apple, employees working on AI projects are encouraged to not even update their LinkedIn profiles. While this may prevent employees from being poached, it may also make the company a less alluring place to work. Because the AI community is relatively small, the report relays that taking on a role at such a secretive company may not be all that appealing.

What makes developing AI different from a mobile operating system—apart from the uncharted technical territory—is the small pool of potential hires. “The really strong people don’t want to go into a closed environment where it’s all secret,” Bengio says. “The differentiating factors are, ‘Who are you going to be working with?’ ‘Am I going to stay a part of the scientific community?’ ‘How much freedom will I have?’ ”

Besides alienating the industry’s stars, Apple’s secrecy risks turning off promising graduate students, says Trevor Darrell, managing director of a machine-learning research center at the University of California at Berkeley. The ability to continue publishing and otherwise maintain a presence in the scientific community is the most important factor for top students making career decisions, he says.

With AI clearly an increasingly important facet of mobile software, one can only hope that Apple perhaps loosens up a bit in the months and years ahead. There’s a whole lot more to the Bloomberg story, so make sure to hit the source link below for the full scoop.

Yoni Heisler Contributing Writer

Yoni Heisler has been writing about Apple and the tech industry at large with over 15 years of experience. A life long expert Mac user and Apple expert, his writing has appeared in Edible Apple, Network World, MacLife, Macworld UK, and TUAW.

When not analyzing the latest happenings with Apple, Yoni enjoys catching Improv shows in Chicago, playing soccer, and cultivating new TV show addictions.