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Frenzy, Confusion Faced by Developers & Designers for Apple

Think your job is stressful? Here's how leaks, rumors, and gossip guide the iPhone, iPad, and Mac accessory and software industry.
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Apple is a notoriously private company. Its product development is shrouded in mystery, and has its own rumor mill--constantly adding to the air of intruigue leading up to a new product release. And that secrecy is only getting more intense.

"We're going to double down on secrecy on products," Tim Cook, Apple's CEO, said last week. 

The hush-hush strategy really makes sense for Apple. On the day of its release, for example, Apple sold more than one million iPhone 4Ss.

But while Apple enjoys the ecstatic buying frenzy of Apple-philes on any given product-release day, accessory makers and software developers face a massive industry conundrum. Customers will want to buy accessories and download software as soon as they buy the new iPhone or iPad, but designing--or redesigning, as it may be--products and software for Apple products can take months. 

Because specifications about products are not actually released until the products are on shelves, businesses have adopted a variety of strategies to stay ahead of the curve. Hoping to catch a glimpse of upcoming software changes, some developers pay the $1,600 entry fee into Apple's developer conference--the WWDC conference--hoping to glean some useful insights. 

This year, tickets sold out within two hours. But for the rest of the pack, paying attention to industry gossip is the only way to stay in pace with the competition.

The rumor mill has been institutionalized in sites such as BGR.com, Macrumors.com, and 9to5mac.com--blogs dedicated to reporting leaked product information and industry gossip. Every company has its own strategy, bust most admit that reading the speculation is necessary to developing products.

"We have little to no choice but to listen to rumors and leaks," says Andrew Ackloo, the CEO of Toronto-based iSkin, which has manufactured iPhone, iPad, and iPod cases since 2002. "It's the only thing we have to go on."

Ackloo says that unlike some of his competitors, iSkin, which has about 100 employees, is not in a position to be first to market with its accessories immediately when a new product launches. But he admits it does use leaks to help guide the initial design process.

"We don't just simply take the rumor and say, that's what it’s going to be," he says. "We're going to use our own analysis. We'll ask, 'What's wrong with that rumor?' There are always those types of conversations happening."

Teasing out the likelihood of a product's design is based on experience and industry knowledge, but there's a hint metaphysics of involved, too. "You have to develop new senses to help you steer your product strategy," Ackloo says.

In the third-party manufacturer ecosystem, there are inevitably some business-owners who choose to roll the dice. And risks can pay off. By designing and manufacturing a run of products based on an assumed product designs, companies can reap the rewards of being first to market.

Erik Attkisson, the chief innovation officer at Case-Mate, a 180-employee firm based in Atlanta that designs accessories for several electronic brands, says in order to cope with the lack of official specifications notices from Apple, the company has built "speed and response" into its design and manufacturing process.

"We're entrepreneurs," he says. "We absolutely take risks on products based on rumors we hear. If we feel like there's a general consensus emerging, absolutely, we'll take a risk. If we're feeling really confident, we'll go for it."

He adds: "Sometimes it pans out for us, sometimes it doesn't. It's in our genes and it's what we do."

Over the past few years, there have been several rumors of Apple-contracted factories in China offering specifications to accessory-makers in an attempt to generate business for the factories. Ernesto Quinteros, the chief brand officer of Belkin, one of the largest accessory-makers with 1,200 employees worldwide, confirms that factories have contacted them about specifications. Although the offer is lucrative--having specifications first would enable Belkin to have products on shelves first--Belkin claims it has never accepted design leaks from factories.

"We're quite frightened by even participating with that," says Quinteros. "We have a good relationships with Apple and we would not want to do anything that would jeopardize that. One time someone shared with us some files and we sent them directly to Apple. It was a factory. We worked with Apple in the past, and we thought that Apple needed to know."

The conundrum of Apple's secrecy isn't limited to hardware manufacturers. Software developers and app makers contend with new screen sizes, new operating systems, and new requirements that can be costly to update.

"The most difficult thing for us is any kind of screen size changes," says Simon Lee, co-founder of London-based Locassa, an app development agency founded in 2009 with six full-time employees. "Without really, really strong connections to Apple, it's very hard to get any kind of insight into what they're bringing out. What traditionally happens is that, unless you're one of the big players, the new software gets announced and there's this mad rush to either pick up the form factor or, in a broader sense, if there are new features that they've put in, and to take advantage of those features to create apps that are really engaging for users."

He adds: "The problem with that rushing aspect is that the quality control isn't there. You're fighting against this massive tide of other developers trying to get their apps out."

New operating systems can create a nightmare for software developers. Apps that worked on iOS 4, for example, might have a bugs in iOS 5. But without the product in-hand, developers can't know what to fix until the day the product is released. Plus, the review process for getting apps approved in Apple's app store may change. In other words, code requirements that were accepted one day may not be accepted the next. Bizness Apps, a two-year-old San Francisco-based start-up that makes white-label apps for businesses with about 25 employees, submits about 70 apps per day, and can't afford to stop its production flow each time Apple makes a software updates. New product launches are especially treacherous.

"Customer service goes wild," says Zach Cusimano, the COO of Bizness Apps. "Everybody is losing their mind. People are losing faith in our company, doubting us, like, 'Can you even get apps approved?' We try to explain to people that it's not us: They changed stuff on us."

While hardware and software companies face completely separate challenges when new Apple products are released, on the day of the product release, they are united in one common element: Pandemonium.

While hardware and software companies face completely separate challenges when new Apple products are released, on the day of the product release, they are united in one common element: Pandemonium.

"It's like an earthquake over at our office," says Cusimano.

"It's like hell," says Andrew Ackloo, CEO of iSkin. "No one has a moment to sit. It's packaging, it's marketing, it's photography, it's design. We're doing everything ourselves. If Apple throws a curveball, and says, guess what, the screen is going to go from edge to edge, then a lot of our platforms fail, we can't use them, and we have to come up with new ones."

Smaller firms accept they won't be the first to market. That's why a focus on quality, not speed, has become the de rigeur strategy. 

"What we generally do is we say 'OK, as a company, we're not going to try and fight against that wave of people, we're going to take a measured approached to that.' We consult with our clients and say 'Here are the new features.' If this it's something we think is going to benefit the app then we'll take a measured approached to implementing that."

"It's like an earthquake over at our office."
—Zach Cusimano, COO of Bizness Apps

Same goes with smaller manufacturing firms, too.

"We're never first," admits Ackloo. "We know that. We don't want to necessarily be first because we never want to sell a product with our name on it that doesn't fit properly or didn't consider some feature from Apple that we didn't consider. We will always take the time to get a real iPhone, test it, and release the product."

Ultimately, accessory makers and manufacturers have a give-and-take relationship with Apple. Each time Apple releases a new product, manufacturers see a surge of revenue.  But the experience of anticipating, designing, and launching each product can be the hardest part of the business.

"It's extremely stressful," says Ackloo. But, it's also what keeps the business afloat. "The magic in this industry is that it renews itself after 12-to-18 months."

He pauses. "But that's what sucks about it too," he says.

Last updated: Jun 6, 2012




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