Once upon a time, building computers was as solitary an affair as using one, and a smart executive named Steve Jobs exploited this cloistered secrecy for fun and profit. But Apple's hermetic seal has broken, and there's no restoring it.

iRoots of an iLeak

In many ways, Jobs has himself to blame for the inevitable crumbling of Apple's wall of silence. He buttoned up the company's blabbermouths upon his return to the helm in 1997, but he promptly began sowing the very seeds that would eventually force the company into a more transparent future: After becoming interim CEO, Jobs made his first big mark with the iMac, a machine that would not only bring Apple's Macintosh squarely into the age of mass internet access, but that would also become the physical manifestation for a broader restructuring of Apple around the global sharing of information.

Under Jobs' relentless and obsessive leadership, the company's software strategy would come to revolve around iTunes, iPhoto, iMovie and other iApps, where the "i" stood for internet and the big sell was instant information exchange, via uploading, downloading and other forms of publishing. The company's subsequent products helped pioneer home use of wifi, encouraged people to digitize and republish their CDs, and promoted user-generated digital video well before the launch of YouTube. It certainly helped that Apple's computers, especially its laptops, were attractive enough to underline the internet's transition from geek tool to consumer playground.

If the iComputers and iSoftware embodied Jobs vision of a remade Apple, what came next manifest his ideas for the very future of computing: A series of breakthrough mobile devices: the iPod music player, the iPhone communications handset and, just arrived on the scene, the iPad tablet. What Jobs sat atop could no longer be described a computer company but rather a business that sought, with much success, to create tools for building the future itself.

It is in the era of the iPhone and iPad that Apple's wall of secrecy has most noticeably crumbled, and it is no mystery why that should be: Because their function is to bridge people together, the iPhone and iPad had to be developed more openly and with more partners than virtually any of the creations in Apple's past. The devices represent the most perfect culmination yet of Jobs' mission to enable easy and ubiquitous digital connections between people, from the sharing of pictures to the buying of movies to the sending of countless emails, tweets, blog posts, documents, drawings and other works of varied and personal arts, many accompanied by sounds, videos and other media created or copied.

It is inconceivable, then, that an iPhone or iPad could do its job well without being deeply enmeshed, from the earliest moments of creation, in networks outside the walls of Apple's headquarters in Cupertino, California. And it's equally inconceivable that the devices could ever succeed at mass scale without accelerating the spreads of the behaviors they were expressly designed to encourage.

Indiscretion's inevitable acceleration

Which brings us, at last, to the new iPhone prototype obtained and amply documented by our intrepid colleagues at Gizmodo (follow-up posts are here). On the one hand, it's easy to dismiss the unprecedented device leak as a fluke: A young Apple engineer went drinking on his birthday and inadvertently left his disguised test model on a barstool. The person who found the phone happened to be 1) unsuccessful in returning it either to the engineer; or to Apple; 2) savvy enough to realize it was no ordinary iPhone; 3) willing to sell a peek to others; and 4) successful in finding a taker, Gawker Media.

And yet this was the sort of fluke that was bound to happen, eventually, strictly as a matter of statistical probability. That's because a mobile phone is not like a laptop, a piece of software or even an MP3 player.

To put it plainly, a mobile cellular device cannot be properly and fully tested indoors within the perimeter secured by Apple's headquarters security. If you don't allow it to roam widely in the real world, you're going to have a hard time testing a wide range of cellular and WiFi conditions, the sorts of use scenarios that help you figure out that, say, a plastic backing allows for better signal reception than an aluminum flipside like on the iPad, or that there's an edge-condition error in the software triggered when you've got half a bar of reception, an exceptionally slow network and a fat email attachment. Are the heat and weight OK in your jeans pocket, even when enveloped in a disguising plastic casing? Is there a cheap old wifi router sitting in a café somewhere that throws the OS' network authentication system for a loop?

Even if Apple could test all of these variables with the right diagnostic equipment on its campus—and no doubt Jobs is exploring all his options in this regard right now—the company would still have to worry about the indiscretions of its growing stable of outside partners. There's no arguing that Apple has increasingly had to work with others; the networked nature of its newest devices requires it. Some of the early leaks about the iPad, after all, came from the print publishers Apple hoped would tailor their content for the device; one book-company CEO even blabbed Jobs' secrets on national television. It's a small miracle pictures of the device, reportedly chained to desks at various media companies, didn't flood the internet (Engadget did apparently get its hands on some).

When Jobs unveiled the iPhone in 2007, he shared the stage with executives from three other companies: Google, which providing mapping services to the device; Yahoo, which offered email; and Cingular, the cellular provider that later rebranded as AT&T. Word of Apple's deal with its next big potential mobile partner, Verizon Wireless, has already been leaked to the Wall Street Journal.

Apple's most important partner is probably Foxconn, the company that manufactures its devices. It was nearly a year ago that a Foxconn employee had his own lost iPhone prototype incident. The worker lived in a factory dormitory in China rather than in freewheeling, wired-to-the-gills Silicon Valley, and the lost device never surfaced online; still, amid reportedly intense company interrogation, the worker committed suicide.

Though Apple's cloistered culture of secrets has been eroding more rapidly lately, the process has been underway for some time. Harvard student and Think Secret publisher Nicholas Ciarelli was using his PowerBook G4 to expose the company's confidential plans before there was any such thing as an iPhone or even a MacBook. And while Apple threw the book at Ciarelli, engaging him in a grinding lawsuit, the company took a more pragmatic approach to the other gossip bloggers who had mushroomed around him: co-optation. With its fearsome legal department as the stick, Apple broke out the carrots, doling out access to bloggers who would remove the most damaging bits of gossip. Sites like MacRumors and AppleInsider now wear "removed at the request of Apple legal" as a badge of honor atop their yanked posts.

Apple PR has deftly extended this co-optation strategy beyond background briefings to rumor sites, sometimes giving early product demonstrations to sites like Gizmodo and Engadget at the same time as reviewers from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Jobs himself endorsed as "insightful" a post on John Gruber's Daring Fireball.

A challenge to Apple's strategy

But however adroit Apple's handling of it, the overriding trend is toward more exposure of Apple's secrets rather than toward more control. Most key details of the iPad and iPhone 3GS were anticipated and publicized well in advance; there was no video or pictures and there were many false rumors, but if you just wanted a general sense of what was coming, the advance gossip was reasonably solid.

Apple's problem is that it increasingly has to worry about the general public it has digitally empowered rather than some elite cadre of bloggers and journalists. People are carrying around iPhones and other cameraphones; they've got Flip cameras, netbooks, iPads, laptops; they upload to Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and any number of other sites. One Cupertino resident even snapped a digital picture of Jobs on the street and emailed it in to celebrity-tracking website TMZ, of all places (see screenshot, right).

Heck, the new iPhone Gizmodo detailed first surfaced on a Chinese Twitter account, if MacRumors is to be believed.

This general backdrop of highly mobile, high-speed digital connectedness has led to any number of other leaks; as cataloged here by TUAW, they include early leaked images supplied by tipsters of the iPhone 3G and Unibody MacBook Pro.

So while the latest Apple leak might be chalked up to the intersection of an aggressive tabloid publisher and a careless Apple employee, the backdrop is a cultural and technological evolution, accelerated by Apple itself, that makes this sort of exposure increasingly inevitable.

If you're Apple, reaping millions of dollars worth of free publicity each year by whipping the press and your fanboys into frenzied guessing game, the logical question is, What to do now? How do you co-opt a corps of writers that increasingly is too big to bribe and too fiercely competitive to bring to heel? How do you pull off a magic show when you're surrounded by cameras?

Jobs was recently overheard enthusiastically asking his frenemy Eric Schmidt of Google, apropos of who-knows-what, "They're going to see it all eventually so who cares how they get it?" That sounded like a prelude to disingenuous and bad advice at the time, especially coming from a master of marketing and showmanship like Jobs. But the big iPhone leak of 2010 leaves us wondering if the Apple honcho, thinking like a Googler for once, might not have been on to something:

Apple is going to have to start worrying a lot less about how its users get its secrets. Or, failing that, at least stop caring quite so much, because the path of secrecy is increasingly a futile and frustrating one, as much as any of us might enjoy a magic show now and again.