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Apple 'gag order' and the fear factor

Broaching Apple in any discussion with any company evokes, what can only be described as, fear.

Drop the word "Apple" into any discussion with any company and the effect is nothing short of remarkable.

This innocuous logo can evoke fear
This innocuous logo can evoke fear

Over the last year, I have talked to middle-level and high-ranking executives at enough companies to know exactly what to expect when the topic of Apple is broached: fear.

A recent interview with a fairly big company provides an example as good as any. (But I could cite a much bigger company too, it's doesn't seem to matter.)

The way this interview proceeded was typical. Most of it was devoted to questions about the company's product plans (unrelated to Apple)--and the interviewee divulged plenty of information. A smaller slice of the interview was about customers or companies related to the interviewee (again, unrelated to Apple). Here, queries were answered with differing levels of transparency. Though less was revealed, nothing was a conversation stopper.

Then, toward the end, the conversation turned to Apple--which is not unusual as Apple's tentacles are everywhere, particularly in the case of hardware. My question began something like: "So, I understand Apple is..." The response was remarkably consistent with past interviews. I quote from the mid-level manager: "I don't want to lose my job." I've heard variations on this job security (I-have-absolutely-nothing-to-say) theme related to Apple during the last 12 months or so.

The angst is always palpable. When the interviewees clam up, then quip something like "I like getting a paycheck every month," with a wry smile, they aren't joking. And these people don't even work for Apple.

I haven't written about the Apple gag-order syndrome until now because it hadn't struck me as that surprising, i.e., the stock phrase "I can't comment on another company's product plans" is used often--not to mention the legal weight of nondisclosure agreements.

But this changed a few months ago when I realized how the Apple question consistently evokes fear (or call it distinct unease) in many interviewees.

A sensational claim? Maybe it sounds that way. But I'm calling it as I see it.

Why Apple? It's not a stretch to say that Apple is probably one of the most secretive companies in Silicon Valley. But it's also one of the most influential and, consequently, most powerful. How do I know this? This middle-level manager at this fairly big, independent, and successful company felt compelled to comment on his job security twice. And the second time he said it, the smile had clearly left his face.