At Apple’s keynote on Monday, Tim Cook took the stage with a newly refined pitch for why Apple services are different. They’re intuitive, of course, and there’s the usual Cupertino fussiness around the details, but the important point came at the end. “They’re designed to keep your personal information private and secure,” he told the audience. As each new product came out — a credit card, a news service, and a premium TV channel service — the executives emphasized how careful they were being about the data involved and how much they prized the user’s privacy.
From the right angle, you can see a broader picture of how Apple thinks about services taking shape. In streaming and digital payments, Apple is competing against a generation of tech companies that are all deeply influenced by Jobs and the iPhone. A good sense of design and software ecosystems are table stakes but not enough to give them an edge against Google and Facebook. Apple’s edge is that, unlike those giants, it doesn’t sell targeted ads, and it doesn’t collect and distribute the massive amounts of personal data associated with that. Given the choice, Apple is guessing you’ll want the digital wallet without the billion-dollar ad business attached. In that way of thinking, online services compete on trust, and Apple is pitching itself as a privacy provider.
Apple has made this pitch before, although it’s rarely been as pronounced as it was at Monday’s event. As Facebook has weathered scandal after scandal, Tim Cook has positioned Apple as a model of responsible tech, calling for a federal crackdown on data brokers and embracing calls for new data privacy standards. For services like Photos and iMessage, where Google and Facebook offer near-identical competitors, Apple has made a point of keeping data local to the device — a step the competition can’t take for business reasons.
Apple’s event this week focused on a new Apple Pay-integrated credit card, a revamped news app, and streaming services for games and TV, and each one fits into the same privacy pitch. What you spend your money on is incredibly sensitive data, and it’s widely monetized through the same data brokers that Cook pushed to regulate. Apple can plausibly claim to be less interested in monetizing your data than Visa or Bank of America because it’s making all of the money it needs by selling you the device. When the Apple Card’s Goldman Sachs partnership came up, a carefully worded privacy promise appeared onstage: “Goldman Sachs will never share or sell your data to third parties for marketing.” (The Card’s privacy page clarifies: “Of course, Goldman Sachs will use your data to operate Apple Card.”)
The same privacy concerns apply to the articles you read, which are both potentially sensitive and crammed with cross-site trackers to let the sites make money. A subscription service removes all of that, at least in theory, leaving only Apple with the data. Netflix and Amazon don’t target ads, but the new generation of smart TVs increasingly do, giving you one more reason to watch things on your iPad instead.
Like most Apple projects, this is more about the ecosystem than any one service. If you truly believe Apple is better at safeguarding your data, then you wouldn’t stop at just using an Apple Card for payments. You’ll want to use Apple services for all of your sensitive data — and, of course, you’ll need Apple devices to do that. Even if the company doesn’t make extra money on the Apple Card itself, privacy-focused services could pay massive dividends in other parts of the company. Crucially, Apple is still collecting a lot of data. In most cases, it’s just sharing it with fewer companies.
There are reasons to be skeptical. Apple still collects a lot of your data to optimize services and, occasionally, to serve targeted ads, even if it doesn’t do it at the scale of Google and Facebook. The fact that its services are private might also be less convincing against Netflix and HBO, Apple’s main competitors on the streaming TV, both of which sell a fairly straightforward product without any targeted ad shenanigans to fund the product. Perhaps most significantly, Apple’s new reputation as a privacy protector relies on looking beyond iCloud’s history of account hacks, most notably the 2014 hacks that compromised celebrity accounts and flooded nude pictures onto the internet. Even if you trust Apple completely, you’re putting your data in the hands of a single centralized entity that knows who you are, which is inherently riskier than using a patchwork of more federated products.
Still, it’s hard to fault Apple for trying. There’s a serious lack of trust in the tech world right now, and any company that can bridge that gap will reap immense rewards. It’s not easy to compete with Google and Facebook, and this kind of privacy play could be the best way to do it. As Apple dives headlong into the services business, it’s exactly the kind of angle it needs.