There’s been a lot of coverage of Tim Cook’s rhetorical attack on competitors such as Google and Facebook, and how they hold no regard for the privacy of their users. The Apple CEO said at an event in Washington, D.C. that such companies “have built their businesses by lulling their customers into complacency about their personal information.” Yet by drawing such a hard line in the sand, Cook has not only called attention to the holes in Apple’s portfolio when it comes to the cloud, he’s made it that much harder for the company to ever become competitive in those areas.
It’s easy to see why Cook would want to come down hard on Google and Facebook, at least from a PR perspective: their approach is the polar opposite of Apple’s, and whenever such divisions exist it’s tempting to paint a competitor’s strategy as a moral failing.
That may win points with people who already see Google and Facebook as evil behemoths, but then most of those people are probably already Apple customers, which means Cook is largely preaching to the converted. Plenty of others who are on the fence — and possibly even some Apple users — are going to wonder why Apple doesn’t just compete by, you know, competing. In other words, why doesn’t it build a better photo service than Google’s, or make Siri better than Google Now? As the Verge notes:
“Fact is, Apple is behind on web services. Its highly successful strategy of using iTunes software to create a digital hub in the home sold a lot of Apple hardware. But it also left the company woefully ill prepared to provide cloud computing in the post-PC era. iCloud continues to stumble forward like a neglected toddler.”
There’s a very real chance that Cook’s commitment to privacy and making people pay for services (instead of subsidizing them through advertising) could turn into a massive blind spot for Apple. Why? Because the key to services like Google Photos, or Google Now, or even Google Maps — another area where Apple has fallen behind — is to know as much as possible about your customer, and that means accumulating as much data as you possibly can about who they are and their behavior patterns.
Is this creepy? Of course it is. I’ve written before about how Google Now walks right up to the creepy line and in some cases crosses it, but the reality is that it’s also incredibly useful. Google Photos is better because it has facial recognition and knows where I am, and Google Maps is better because it tracks my location, and Google Now can suggest all kinds of things because it’s reading my email and it knows what’s on my calendar.
To suggest, as Cook does, that Google is doing these things only because it wants to sell me out to advertisers is facile at best, and I’m pretty sure even he doesn’t believe it. Google does it because that approach makes for a better service, which means more people will use it, which means it gets even more data. And yes, it can also generate ad revenue.
The risk for Apple is that smart cloud services like maps and photos and assistants become much more important for the future of computing than a shiny device, which means Apple could wind up winning the battle but losing the war. Andreessen Horowitz analyst Benedict Evans said on Twitter that this blind spot could turn out to be as large and expensive as BlackBerry’s assumption that all people really wanted was email and a long battery life.
Obviously, Apple has a market cap of $750 billion and more money on its balance sheet than several European countries, so we shouldn’t start crying just yet. And it’s entirely possible that shiny devices will be enough for plenty of people, or that they will be happy to buy them and put Google services on them, the way a lot of Apple customers already do. But by drawing his line in the sand, Cook is sentencing Apple to either a lifetime of being on the other side of that curve, or a painful process of having to walk back his remarks in an attempt to catch up.
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