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Is Bloom Box the Silicon Valley's Last Surprise?

In the words of tennis great John McEnroe, "You cannot be serious!"

Bloom Energy, a venture-backed Silicon Valley clean energy startup, burst onto the scene after ten years of operating in secret. Its debut was a total surprise to media and analysts alike, even though the company had high-profile customers like Google, eBay, FedEx and Wal-mart testing the Bloom Box fuel cell system for at least the past year.

The initial reports on Bloom Energy is that the product has the potential to be a truly revolutionary advance in the ongoing battle to generate energy more efficiently. Time will tell, the Bloom Box is very expensive and further testing is needed, but one detail stood out almost as sharply as the company's innovation -- its secrecy.

In an age of social networks, rumor blogs and Web sites and an increasingly mobile work force, the idea that a Silicon Valley company that raised $400 million in venture capital could keep its project under wraps for ten years is remarkable.

Even Apple's become a relative sieve of late compared to the information lock down it was able to achieve in years past. Rumor sites had most of the iPad details nailed down last year, making the late January unveiling almost anticlimactic except for the pricing details and finally seeing the darned thing in action. In fact, Apple's secrecy led to speculation it would deliver more features than it actually did.

So will we ever see another tech product like the Bloom Box or a new Apple device kept completely secret for years in development? And if not, does that represent a serious threat to innovation?

"The ability to keep a secret like Bloom did is incredibly surprising; you just don't see that anymore," Richard Brandt a technology consultant to startups and book author who covered tech for BusinessWeek earlier in his career. "If Apple can't keep a secret, nobody can because Steve Jobs is the master of secrecy and intimidation to try and make sure what they're working on doesn't come out."

Brandt thinks it's much easier to think about long-term development projects staying under wraps outside of Silicon Valley (with its concentration of tech and VC firms) and other regions boasting big research centers than more remote areas. "It's just hard to keep a secret here and when you have all the venture people involved to, secrets tend to get out."

Longtime Silicon Valley watcher Michael Dortch, director of research at Focus said companies can be open and still protect their investment. "To be totally reductionist about this, you can give away the 'what' and sell the 'how,'" Dortch told InternetNews.com. "If I know the 'what' but I don't know how to do it, I have no business."

Of course the 'how' still has to be protected, but Dortch sees change coming to how companies try to address that.

"A lot of companies have these 'we'll boil you in oil if you tell our secrets to anyone' employment clauses, but I think you'll see more incentives to keep intellectual property behind the firewall. If an employer says, for example, you'll get a bonus if you preserve our secrets; I think that has a lot of appeal."

A quirky alternative

Ben Kaufman, founder of e-tailer Quirky, has a very different take on keeping product details secret – he doesn't. The company has an open development model that encourages anyone to submit their ideas for evaluation. If accepted the idea is further refined and developed by the Quirky community and manufactured for sale.

Recent Quirky offerings include The Mugstir, a portable spoon that hangs on your coffee cup. Another is StashCan, a kitchen trash can with a trash bag storage compartment. Then there's Kickster, a cool-looking hard plastic case for the iPod Nano with a swivel kickstand for easily positioning the device.

"What we're trying to do is be transparent in a way no company has ever been before," Kaufman told InternetNews.com. "Our customers are our contractors which is fantastic because there's a kind of back and forth transparency that builds a great deal of trust."

Rather than keep things under wraps in hopes of making a big splash, Kaufman says there's value in Quirky's more iterative approach. "We fail every day. A lot of designs don't make it," he said. "But we're okay with that. We can be very agile. When we fall, we don't fall hard."

Easier said for a $14.35 Kickster than the $700,000 Bloom Box.

David Needle is the West Coast bureau chief at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.