Mr. Jobs, tear down this wall

I could not agree more with Anil Dash’s thoughtful essay challenging Apple to reconsider the personal cost to its employees of the company’s paranoid secrecy.

Quote:

“Apple must transform itself and leave its history of secrecy behind, not just to continue being innovative and to protect the fundamentals of its business, but because the cost of keeping these secrets has become morally and ethically untenable.”

Anil’s post is, in part, related to Sun Danyong, a young man in Dongguan, China, who worked for Foxconn, one of Apple’s most important iPhone suppliers, who killed himself after misplacing a prototype iPhone device.

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I’m surprised that the coverage of Sun Danyong’s death has not mentioned* another tragic death that took place in the early 1990s, during the long-delayed launch of the Newton MessagePage.

As recounted in the 1993 book, Defying Gravity, by Markos Kounalakis**, the pressure-packed days during the development of the Apple Newton took their toll on many members of the development team. Most tragic was the suicide of Ko Isono, a 30-year-old programmer from Japan who was writing the portion of the Newton software that controlled how text and graphics were displayed on the screen. Another programmer had a breakdown and attacked his roommate, ending up in jail on an assault charge.

Reading about that tragedy in John Markoff’s 1993 New York Times piece, Marketer’s Dream, Engineer’s Nightmare, I’m struck by the ironic and tragic disconnect between the public pronouncements and promises of John Sculley (this was while Jobs was away from the company) and the private hell that was taking place secretly inside the walls of Apple.***

Perhaps even more ironic: Those of us who drink and serve the Kool-Aid of conversational media, transparency and openness seem to love Apple’s products: attend SXSW and you’ll see what I mean. But when it comes to conversational media, transparency and openness, Apple is like North Korea with cool products and clever advertising.

*At least, my searches via google has not located any.

**Kounalakis went on to have a stellar career in journalism. He is now president and publisher of The Washington Monthly magazine. Another account of the pressure-intense development of the Newton can be found in

***Re-reading Markoff’s article and then recalling the rest of the Newton’s history, including how Jobs killed it almost immediately upon his return to Apple, I’m also struck by even more irony regarding the Newton story — irony I’ll save for another post.