Competing Interests

I enjoyed reading the Washington Post Tim Cook interview. The interview was wide in scope and really gives you a window into the mind of Apple's CEO. I recommend it. One section that raised my eyebrows was the discussion of security and privacy. This issue is a fascinating one to me because Apple has taken such a leading role in advocating privacy rights for consumers. As Tim explaned in the interview, "Customers should have an expectation that they shouldn’t need a PhD in computer science to protect themselves."

Elsewhere in the interview, Tim talks about Apple's mission.

The DNA of the company is really what I was talking about there. The North Star has always been the same, which for us, is about making insanely great products that really change the world in some way — enrich people’s lives. And so our reason for being hasn’t changed.

I absolutely believe the folks at Apple get out of bed in the morning to make great products. However, it really isn't that simple. If you don't believe me, perhaps I could interest you in a 16GB iPhone. Making insanely great products has always required compromises. Apple has to make a profit if they want to stay in business and every Apple product (just like any other company's product) that comes to market requires thousands of small compromises. That's always come with the territory but until recently, I've never really thought of Apple having a competing North Star. Now I wonder.

Privacy is a big deal to Apple. Tim explained:

Privacy, in my point of view, is a civil liberty that our Founding Fathers thought of a long time ago and concluded it was an essential part of what it was to be an American. Sort of on the level, if you will, with freedom of speech, freedom of the press.

I think this is more than CEO puffing. I think Tim, and the rest of Apple leadership, feels this in their bones and they are absolutely willing to go to bat for consumers on the issue of privacy. They took a drubbing over the San Bernardino case and I suspect they'd do it all over again. The question, however, becomes what happens when protecting consumer privacy gets in the way of making insanely great products? If Apple's unstoppable force hits its own immovable object, who wins?

There are plenty of consumers already getting off the Apple services bandwagon in favor of Google precisely because the way Google does everything on its servers results in some insanely great user experiences. Apple is responding by trying to get those types of services on-device as opposed to the less private cloud storage as Google does. We're early days on this but it seems, at least for the immediate future, that the cloud service solution is better, faster, and more adaptable than on-device.

If Tim Cook were sitting here right now, I suspect he'd argue that the 2016 version of an insanely great product is one that (in addition to many other features) protects user privacy and going back to the issue of compromises, it's probably better that you not let somebody else index all of your photos, even if that would make it easier to search out pictures of canteloupes. I agree with that particular compromise but as we move into the next few years, I think the goals of great products and protecting user privacy aren't always going to align.