Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Tortoise Media Begins Investigating Tech Companies as Though They Were Nation-States, Starting With Apple

Peter Hoskin and Alexi Mostrous, Tortoise (via Kirk McElhearn):

From Apple TV+ to Apple Music, from Apple Pay to Apple News+, Cook’s company is now the gateway through which millions of us live our lives. We watch movies, pay for groceries, read the news, go to the gym, adjust our heating and monitor our hearts through Apple services, which is now the company’s fastest growing division.

Living within this carefully curated ecosystem, soon to be bolstered by new augmented reality products, the company’s 1.4 billion active users have become less like customers and more like citizens. We no longer just live our lives on Apple’s phones, but in them.

Apple’s market valuation is roughly equal to the national net worth of Denmark, the 28th wealthiest country in the world. It has as many users as China has citizens. Its leader has a close relationship with the US president and other heads of state. In all but name, this is a superpower, wielding profound influence over our lives, our politics and our culture.

That’s why Tortoise has decided to report on Apple as if it is a country: the first instalment in a year-long project we are calling Tech Nations, which will cover all the main technology giants. Here, we’ll examine Apple’s economy, its foreign policy and its cultural affairs. We’ll dig into its leadership, its security operation and its lobbying spend. We’ll identify the executives likely to succeed Cook, and the areas where Apple is falling behind in the global tech race.

This is a curious way to frame this series of reports. It’s not hard to see this as the corporate insider counterpart to the countless Apple is a religion takes that have littered the media world since the 1980s. Most of those were entirely thoughtless; this seems to be more considered, but it verges on the ridiculous. While many of us may be “citizens” of Apple, we have every ability to leave that world by replacing their products and services with competitors’ offerings. But it is virtually impossible to never use anything from Amazon, Google, or Microsoft — even if you are not consciously using products from any of those companies. And that makes mongering sentiments, like the clause in the last sentence of this paragraph, seem wildly mistargeted:

There is a sense of necessity, even of wisdom, about these shifts. After all, consumers have become less willing to pay out for iteratively improved phones, so new ways of making money from the phones they already have must be found. The idea is to expand the Apple ecosystem so far that consumers never need to – or never can – leave it.

The “shifts” described are in Apple’s emphasis of its more private products and services:

Yet Cook has made some defining interventions. Other companies, such as Facebook and Google, are happy for a sort of chaos to prevail: an online world that’s sprawling, messy and mostly unregulated, where data can be plucked from the air and passed on to advertisers. Cook is trying to create a refuge: a unified world of hardware, software and services, all under Apple’s flag, where citizens can expect their data to remain their own.

Far from hoping that Apple will be the sole provider of “refuge”, Cook has argued for privacy legislation. It’s fair to retort that this would be in the best interests of Apple, but I also think it would be better for everyone if Apple could not be one of the few companies that can claim to care about privacy. Privacy should not be a unique selling point. Users of any product or service should expect their personal data to be treated with due respect, without exploitation.

Imagine if Apple had to compete primarily on the quality of their services, with privacy as a guaranteed benchmark for them and their competitors.

Instead, we’re seeing the opposite: exploitative ad companies like Google and Facebook are re-framing themselves as respectful of user privacy, despite making no meaningful business model changes. While many of Apple’s services — like iCloud, Messages, and Maps — have been getting much better, they’re now tasked with also redefining their unique offering in the absence of meaningful privacy regulation. It’s entirely fair for them to keep beating that drum.