Tim Cook understands rebranding. He transformed Steve Jobs’ scrappy, innovative company into a sleepy, iterative cash cow. Now he’s trying to change the rules for big tech.
The Apple chief executive was in Brussels on Wednesday. He wants worldwide regulators to dramatically curtail the amount of personal data that technology companies can collect.
In the current climate, the message hits the right notes.
Cook is casting Apple as a privacy warrior, a wiry David fighting the good fight against the data industrial complex set up for the benefit of tech Goliaths.
But lost in this message is the fact that this move is completely self-serving.
Cook does have some bona fides. The company stood up to the FBI in 2016 when the law enforcement agency wanted access to the iPhone of a suspected terrorist. At the time, the company’s privacy stance became a rallying cry for the rest of Silicon Valley. Leaders at Google, Facebook and Amazon.com stood shoulder to shoulder, in defiance of the feds.
This time is different. Cook is now rebranding big tech companies as the villains.
The problem is that the narrative is not remotely true. Users understand services free to them are supported by advertising. They know Google keeps track of their search history, Facebook knows their friends and likes, and Amazon logs what they buy. They are not being duped.
Cook knows this, too. He’s not worried about data collection. Rather, he’s worried about competitors building better products and services. So, he is attempting to rewrite the rules.
Artificial intelligence is the future of commerce. In the old days, companies came up with ideas. They ran focus groups and other testing, then put live products out into the market place.
It was hit and mostly miss.
Now, innovative companies use AI and massive simulation to fashion new products and services. It is a revolution made possible by data. And companies are locked in mortal combat to get it.
Google’s Pixel smartphone is widely considered to have the best mobile camera. That is a crown Apple used to wear proudly. Pixel uses computational photography to take spellbinding pictures.
Google engineers were able to leapfrog the competition because they have been collecting and analyzing anonymized data from billions of pictures uploaded to Google Photos. That is its free hosting service, to which all Android cameras can save pictures automatically … if their owners wish.
The company Jobs built was very different. Through his personal ingenuity and sheer stubbornness, Apple came up with a lot of great ideas. Where others missed often, Apple mostly, but not always, succeeded.
Under the rules of the old world, the company was untouchable.
But Cook’s Apple is no innovator. It is easy to lose sight of the transformation. Hundreds of millions of iPhones sold mask a lot banality.
Take Siri. Despite launching its digital assistant first, Siri has fallen so far behind Google Assistant and Alexa, it is embarrassing.
And last month Facebook launched Portal, its first consumer electronics product. The video appliance uses AI and some nifty voice and camera tricks to understand who is speaking. And it tracks the subject in real time with wide angle photography. Parents out of town with work can read bedtime stories to their children with a clever augmented reality implementation. And Amazon’s Alexa is built in.
Cook sees the shifting landscape that has put iPhone behind in technology. So he wants regulators to crush his competitors.
His handwringing about privacy and data weaponization would be more compelling if Apple’s actual house were in order …
In an effort to sell more iPhones and Macs, the company has been an enthusiastic ally of the Chinese government, a full-blown surveillance state.
And when its Communist Party demanded Apple move iCloud servers to China, Cook set up a joint hosting arrangement with a state-funded entity. He even released the security keys. Reuters reported the decision means Chinese authorities will not have to go through the U.S. court system to comb through the private data accounts of local Apple customers.
Under President Xi, facial recognition software already tracks every man, woman and child in Beijing, a city of 21 million people. And technology is being rolled out across the country to monitor social media, banking and private data across many other formats.
Cook’s worry about western surveillance rings hollow, given his cozy relationship with Xi.
Unfortunately, for Apple competitors, Tim Cook is very good at rebranding. He is methodically changing the narrative around privacy for his benefit. And nobody is holding him to account.
Investors need to be aware his Brussels speech was the opening salvo.
Jon D. Markman