Stealth versus Transparency

The California DMV reported this week that it had granted Apple a license to test three autonomous vehicles, and the Internet went wild.

Apple’s autonomous vehicle work has been an open secret for a few years, so I’m skeptical that this announcement will change much or lead the way to a more meaningful understanding of what Apple is working on.

Beyond just Apple, though, this has me back to thinking about the tradeoff between stealth and transparency.

Transparency in product development seems like an aggressive approach. By opening up about what they’re doing, companies hopes to attract the best talent, the best partners, the earliest and best customers.

Conversely, a stealth approach seems cautious. Companies developing products in secret seem nervous with competitors and the press. Competitors might steal key elements of a developing product, while the press might pressure a company to alter its schedule or pricing or go-to-market strategy.

All else equal, it seems more fun to be aggressive than cautious, but of course all else is never equal. A company is in a good position and has a lot to lose has a lot more reason to be cautious and stealthy. A company in poor position, with nothing to lose, is likely to act aggressively and transparently.

What gets interesting is when companies like Apple, which seems to have nothing to lose in the automotive industry, approaches product development secretively, perhaps because of its culture.