Spoilers vs. spoiled: On Apple beta screenshots and expectational debt

A few weeks ago, code-divers found the Apple Watch companion app for iPhone lurking within the iOS 8.2 beta. Work-in-progress screenshots were shown off and potential new features revealed. Today, a deeper dive was posted. The two pertinent bits of information there: "work in progress" and "potential".

Here's the thing: When it comes to spoilers, we need to make sure we're not the ones who get spoiled.

At WWDC 2013, Apple altered the way the iOS beta non-disclosure agreement worked: Traditionally, the NDA slammed a black curtain around its beta testers, from which no light nor sound was allowed to escape. Two years ago, however, Apple lifted many of the restrictions from that agreement, asking only that people refrain from publishing screenshots or video.

My suspicion is that, at least in part, Apple understands that betas change, and if people see something in a beta and then don't see it in a release, they'll wonder why. They may even get upset. Either way, the story becomes about the change, or perceived loss, and not the final product.

That's even more likely when it comes to pre-beta software. Take last year's Health app as a primary example: It was shown off, pre-beta, in its card metaphor form; at some point, however, Apple realized the app was going to have more data than could comfortably fit a card stack, and switched Health to a list view accordingly. When the beta came out, initial conversations didn't focus on the Health app or its design, but on how and why it had changed. Expectations had been set for Apple rather than by Apple.

Technology is far from the only place this happens. Spoilers are everywhere in the entertainment industry: One actor is rumored, then another is cast. A script is leaked, and the final production is different. Comparisons inevitably get made and, instead of focusing on who and what we saw, we end up wondering about what might have been.

It's why some people love spoilers and seek them out while others avoid them at all costs. What happens to beloved characters or beloved products can be equally stressful, equally scary, equally intriguing, and equally delightful.

Apple is still protecting future products the way Disney is protecting future Star Wars movies, but they've relaxed about coverage once announcements have been made. The company has even started doing public betas for OS X. They're okay with shooting scripts, teasers, and trailers getting out, so to speak, just not the early drafts and not the final film, not until all the edits and FX are done. They still very much want that keynote to be filled an opening day event. After that, they're more open to more discussion from more people than ever.

Historically, I've agreed to NDAs and stuck by those agreements. First, if Apple can't trust me, why should any developer? Second, it affords me the time to really get to know the final products we'll be using and ultimately write about them in an informed if far too long-winded manner. Other outlets avoid NDAs or make other choices. It's what makes the internet diverse.

So, if you want to look at some screenshots extracted from the latest iOS 8 beta, or you want to find out what crazy Force powers might be in Episode VIII, you can take a look. Just keep reminding yourself that nothing is set in stone until it ships. That way, even if you're into spoilers, your expectations and enjoyment aren't what's getting spoiled.