Tim Cook

Apple still has work to do on privacy

Posted by | Android, Apple, artificial intelligence, data processing, data protection, data security, digital privacy, digital rights, Europe, european union, General Data Protection Regulation, human rights, identity management, iPhone, privacy, Security, siri, TC, Tim Cook | No Comments

There’s no doubt that Apple’s self-polished reputation for privacy and security has taken a bit of a battering recently.

On the security front, Google researchers just disclosed a major flaw in the iPhone, finding a number of malicious websites that could hack into a victim’s device by exploiting a set of previously undisclosed software bugs. When visited, the sites infected iPhones with an implant designed to harvest personal data — such as location, contacts and messages.

As flaws go, it looks like a very bad one. And when security fails so spectacularly, all those shiny privacy promises naturally go straight out the window.

The implant was used to steal location data and files like databases of WhatsApp, Telegram, iMessage. So all the user messages, or emails. Copies of contacts, photos, https://t.co/AmWRpbcIHw pic.twitter.com/vUNQDo9noJ

— Lukasz Olejnik (@lukOlejnik) August 30, 2019

And while that particular cold-sweat-inducing iPhone security snafu has now been patched, it does raise questions about what else might be lurking out there. More broadly, it also tests the generally held assumption that iPhones are superior to Android devices when it comes to security.

Are we really so sure that thesis holds?

But imagine for a second you could unlink security considerations and purely focus on privacy. Wouldn’t Apple have a robust claim there?

On the surface, the notion of Apple having a stronger claim to privacy versus Google — an adtech giant that makes its money by pervasively profiling internet users, whereas Apple sells premium hardware and services (including essentially now ‘privacy as a service‘) — seems a safe (or, well, safer) assumption. Or at least, until iOS security fails spectacularly and leaks users’ privacy anyway. Then of course affected iOS users can just kiss their privacy goodbye. That’s why this is a thought experiment.

But even directly on privacy, Apple is running into problems, too.

To wit: Siri, its nearly decade-old voice assistant technology, now sits under a penetrating spotlight — having been revealed to contain a not-so-private ‘mechanical turk’ layer of actual humans paid to listen to the stuff people tell it. (Or indeed the personal stuff Siri accidentally records.)

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A closer look at China’s smartphone market

Posted by | Apple, Asia, China, Government, hardware, huawei, iPhone, Mobile, mobile phone, Policy, Samsung, smartphones, Tariffs, Tim Cook, Trade war | No Comments

In February 2013, China surpassed the United States to become the world’s largest smartphone market. More than half a decade on, it still proves an elusive target for international sellers. A glance at reports from the past several quarters reveals the top spots dominated by homegrown names: Huawei, Vivo, Oppo, Xiaomi.

Combined, the big four made up roughly 84% of the nearly 100 million smartphones shipped last quarter, per new numbers from Canalys. Even international giants like Apple and Samsung have trouble cracking double-digit market share. Of the two, Apple has generally done better, with around 6% of the market — around six times Samsung’s share.

But Apple’s struggles have been very visible nonetheless, as the company has invested a good deal of its own future success into the China market. At the beginning of the year, the company took the rare action of lowering its guidance for Q1, citing China as the primary driver.

“While we anticipated some challenges in key emerging markets, we did not foresee the magnitude of the economic deceleration, particularly in Greater China,” Tim Cook said in a letter to shareholders at the time. “In fact, most of our revenue shortfall to our guidance, and over 100 percent of our year-over-year worldwide revenue decline, occurred in Greater China across iPhone, Mac and iPad.”

When it came time to report, things were disappointing, as expected. The company’s revenue in the area dropped nearly $5 billion, year over year. On the tail of two rough quarters, things picked up a bit for Apple in the country. This week, Tim Cook noted “great improvement” in Greater China.

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What lower Netflix pricing tells us about competing in India

Posted by | Amazon, Apple, Apps, Asia, China, Cred, Disney, Facebook, Finance, FreeCharge, funding, Fundings & Exits, Google India, HBO, Hotstar, iPhone, LinkedIn, Media, Mobile, Netflix, Paytm, Reed Hastings, Satyan Gajwani, SnapDeal, Spotify, Tim Cook, Times Internet, Uber, Vijay Shekhar Sharma | No Comments

At a conference in New Delhi early last year, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings was confronted with a question that his company has been asked many times over the years. Would he consider lowering the subscription cost in India?

It’s a tactic that most Silicon Valley companies have adapted to in the country over the years. Uber rides aren’t as costly in India as they are elsewhere. Spotify and Apple Music cost less than $2 per month to users in the country. YouTube Premium as well as subscriptions to U.S. news outlets such as WSJ and New York Times are also priced significantly lower compared to the prices they charge in their home turf.

Hastings had also come prepared: He acknowledged that the entertainment viewing industry in India is very different from other parts of the world. To be sure, much of the pay-TV in India is supported by ads and the access fee remains too low ($5). But that was not going to change how Netflix likes to roll, he said.

“We want to be sensitive to great stories and to fund those great stories by investing in local content,” he said. “So yes, our strategy is to build up the local content — and of course we have got the global content — and try to uplevel the industry,” he said, identifying movie-goers who spend about Rs 500 ($7.25) or more on tickets each month as Netflix’s potential customers.

GettyImages 992527026 1

Indian commuters walking below a poster of “Sacred Games”, an original show produced by Netflix (Image: INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP/Getty Images)

Less than a year and a half later, Netflix has had a change of heart. The company today rolled out a lower-priced subscription plan in India, a first for the company. The monthly plan, which restricts usage of the service to mobile devices only, is priced at Rs 199 ($2.8) — a third of the least expensive plan in the U.S.

At a press conference in New Delhi today, Netflix executives said that the lower-priced subscription tier is aimed at expanding the reach of its service in the country. “We want to really broaden the audience for Netflix, want to make it more accessible, and we knew just how mobile-centric India has been,” said Ajay Arora, Director of Product Innovation at Netflix.

The move comes at a time when Netflix has raised its subscription prices in the U.S. by up to 18% and in the UK by up to 20%.

Netflix’s strategy shift in India illustrates a bigger challenge that Silicon Valley companies have been facing in the country for years. If you want to succeed in the country, either make most of your revenue from ads, or heavily subsidize your costs.

But whether finding users in India is a success is also debatable.

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Week-in-Review: Alexa’s indefinite memory and NASA’s otherworldly plans for GPS

Posted by | 4th of July, AI assistant, alex wong, Amazon, Andrew Kortina, Android, andy rubin, appeals court, Apple, apple inc, artificial intelligence, Assistant, China, enterprise software, Getty-Images, gps, here, iPhone, machine learning, Online Music Stores, operating systems, Sam Lessin, social media, Speech Recognition, TC, Tim Cook, Twitter, United States, Venmo, voice assistant | No Comments

Hello, weekenders. This is Week-in-Review, where I give a heavy amount of analysis and/or rambling thoughts on one story while scouring the rest of the hundreds of stories that emerged on TechCrunch this week to surface my favorites for your reading pleasure.

Last week, I talked about the cult of Ive and the degradation of Apple design. On Sunday night, The Wall Street Journal published a report on how Ive had been moving away from the company, to the dismay of many on the design team. Tim Cook didn’t like the report very much. Our EIC gave a little breakdown on the whole saga in a nice piece.

Apple sans Ive


Amazon Buys Whole Foods For Over 13 Billion

The big story

This week was a tad restrained in its eventfulness; seems like the newsmakers went on 4th of July vacations a little early. Amazon made a bit of news this week when the company confirmed that Alexa request logs are kept indefinitely.

Last week, an Amazon public policy exec answered some questions about Alexa in a letter sent to U.S. Senator Coons. His office published the letter on its site a few days ago and most of the details aren’t all that surprising, but the first answer really sets the tone for how Amazon sees Alexa activity:

Q: How long does Amazon store the transcripts of user voice recordings?

A: We retain customers’ voice recordings and transcripts until the customer chooses to delete them.

What’s interesting about this isn’t that we’re only now getting this level of straightforward dialogue from Amazon on how long data is kept if not specifically deleted, but it makes one wonder why it is useful or feasible for them to keep it indefinitely. (This assumes that they actually are keeping it indefinitely; it seems likely that most of it isn’t, and that by saying this they’re protecting themselves legally, but I’m just going off the letter.)

After several years of “Hey Alexa,” the company doesn’t seem all that close to figuring out what it is.

Alexa seems to be a shit solution for commerce, so why does Amazon have 10,000 people working on it, according to a report this week in The Information? All signs are pointing to the voice assistant experiment being a short-term failure in terms of the short-term ambitions, though AI advances will push the utility.

Training data is a big deal across AI teams looking to educate models on data sets of relevant information. The company seems to say as much. “Our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems use machine learning to adapt to customers’ speech patterns and vocabulary, informed by the way customers use Alexa in the real world. To work well, machine learning systems need to be trained using real world data.”

The company says it doesn’t anonymize any of this data because it has to stay associated with a user’s account in order for them to delete it. I’d feel a lot better if Amazon just effectively anonymized the data in the first place and used on-device processing the build a profile on my voice. What I’m more afraid of is Amazon having such a detailed voiceprint of everyone who has ever used an Alexa device.

If effortless voice-based e-commerce isn’t really the product anymore, what is? The answer is always us, but I don’t like the idea of indefinitely leaving Amazon with my data until they figure out the answer.

Send me feedback
on Twitter @lucasmtny or email
lucas@techcrunch.com

On to the rest of the week’s news.

Trends of the week

Here are a few big news items from big companies, with green links to all the sweet, sweet added context:

  • NASA’s GPS moonshot
    The U.S. government really did us a solid inventing GPS, but NASA has some bigger ideas on the table for the positioning platform, namely, taking it to the Moon. It might be a little complicated, but, unsurprisingly, scientists have some ideas here. Read more.
  • Apple has your eyes
    Most of the iOS beta updates are bug fixes, but the latest change to iOS 13 brought a very strange surprise: changing the way the eyes of users on iPhone XS or XS Max look to people on the other end of the call. Instead of appearing that you’re looking below the camera, some software wizardry will now make it look like you’re staring directly at the camera. Apple hasn’t detailed how this works, but here’s what we do know
  • Trump is having a Twitter party
    Donald Trump’s administration declared a couple of months ago that it was launching an exploratory survey to try to gain a sense of conservative voices that had been silenced on social media. Now @realdonaldtrump is having a get-together and inviting his friends to chat about the issue. It’s a real who’s who; check out some of the people attending here.
Amazon CEO And Blue Origin Founder Jeff Bezos Speaks At Air Force Association Air, Space And Cyber Conference

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

GAFA Gaffes

How did the top tech companies screw up this week? This clearly needs its own section, in order of badness:

  1. Amazon is responsible for what it sells:
    [Appeals court rules Amazon can be held liable for third-party products]
  2. Android co-creator gets additional allegations filed:
    [Newly unsealed court documents reveal additional allegations against Andy Rubin]

Extra Crunch

Our premium subscription service had another week of interesting deep dives. TechCrunch reporter Kate Clark did a great interview with the ex-Facebook, ex-Venmo founding team behind Fin and how they’re thinking about the consumerization of the enterprise.

Sam Lessin and Andrew Kortina on their voice assistant’s workplace pivot

“…The thing is, developing an AI assistant capable of booking flights, arranging trips, teaching users how to play poker, identifying places to purchase specific items for a birthday party and answering wide-ranging zany questions like “can you look up a place where I can milk a goat?” requires a whole lot more human power than one might think. Capital-intensive and hard-to-scale, an app for “instantly offloading” chores wasn’t the best business. Neither Lessin nor Kortina will admit to failure, but Fin‘s excursion into B2B enterprise software eight months ago suggests the assistant technology wasn’t a billion-dollar idea.…”

Here are some of our other top reads this week for premium subscribers. This week, we talked a bit about asking for money and the future of China’s favorite tech platform:

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Tim Cook wants you to put down your iPhone

Posted by | app developers, app stores, Apple, Apps, iOS, iOS App Store, iOS apps, iPhone, iTunes, Mobile, mobile apps, Opinion, push notifications, screen time, smartphones, Tim Cook | No Comments

Tim Cook thinks people should get off their iPhones and decrease their engagement with apps. The Apple CEO, speaking at the TIME 100 Summit today, was discussing the addictive nature of our mobile devices and Apple’s role in the matter when he made these comments. He said the company hadn’t intended for people to be constantly using their iPhones, and noted he himself has silenced his push notifications in recent months.

“Apple never wanted to maximize user time. We’ve never been about that,” Cook explained.

It’s certainly an interesting claim, given that Apple designed a platform that allowed app developers to constantly ping their users with the most inane notifications — from getting a new follower on a social app to a sale in a shopping app to a new level added to a game and so much more.

The very idea behind the notification platform, opt-in as it may be, is that developers should actively — and in real time — try to capture users’ attention and redirect them back to their apps.

This is not how such an alert mechanism had to be designed.

An app notification platform could have instead been crafted to allow app developers to notify users in batches, at designed intervals within users’ control. For example, users could have specified that every day at noon they’d like to check in on the latest from their apps.

Or, in building out the iOS App Store, Apple could have implemented a “news feed” of sorts — a dedicated channel wherein users could opt to check in on all the latest news from their installed apps.

Or perhaps Apple could have structured a notification platform that would have allowed users to pick between different classes of notifications. Urgent messages — like alerts about a security breach — could have been a top-level tier; while general information could have been sent as a different type of notification. Users could have selected which types of alerts they wanted, depending on how important the app was to them.

These are just a few of many possible iterations. A company like Apple could have easily come up with even more ideas.

But the fact of the matter is that Apple’s notification platform was built with the idea of increasing engagement in mind. It’s disingenuous to say it was not.

At the very least, Apple could admit that it was a different era back then, and didn’t realize the potential damage to our collective psyche that a continually buzzing iPhone would cause. It could point out how it’s now working to fix this problem by putting users back in control, and how it plans to do more in the future.

Instead, it created a situation where users had to turn to the only defense left to them: switching off push notifications entirely. Today, when users install new apps they often say “No” to push notifications. And with Apple’s new tools to control notifications, users are now actively triaging which apps can get in touch.

In fact, that’s what Tim Cook says he did, too.

“If you guys aren’t doing this — if you have an iPhone and you’re not doing it, I would encourage you to really do this — monitor these [push notifications],” the CEO suggested to the audience.

“What it has done for me personally is I’ve gone in and gutted the number of notifications,” Cook said. “Because I asked myself: ‘Do I really need to be getting thousands of notifications a day?’ It’s not something that is adding value to my life, or is making me a better person. And so I went in and chopped that.”

Yep. Even Apple’s CEO is done with all the spam and noise from iPhone apps.

The comment, of course, was supposed to be a veiled reference to the addictive nature of some apps — social media apps in particular, and especially Facebook. Today, Apple throws barbs at Facebook any time it can, now that the company has fallen out of public favor due to its ongoing data privacy violations and constant scandals.

But a more truthful telling of the iPhone’s past would recall that Facebook’s app — and all its many notifications — was originally a big selling point for Apple’s mobile device.

When the App Store first launched in 2008, Facebook proudly sat in the top row in a featured position. It was heavily promoted to users because it was a prime example of the iPhone’s utility: here was this popular social network you could now get to right from your phone. Amazing! 

The fact that Facebook — and every other app — later leveraged the iOS push notification platform to better its own business without regard to how that would impact users isn’t entirely app developers’ collective fault. The notification platform itself had left the door wide open for that sort of psychological abuse to occur, simply because of its lack of user-configured, user-friendly controls.

Above: The App Store at launch, via The NYT

A decade after the App Store launched, Apple finally started to dial back on the free-for-all on user attention.

It announced its suite of digital wellness tools at WWDC 2018, which included Screen Time (a dashboard for tracking and limiting usage); increased parental controls; and finally a way to silence the barrage of notifications, without having to dig around in iOS Settings.

Now Tim Cook wants to have us believe that Apple had never wanted to cause any of this addiction and distraction — despite having created the very platform that made it all possible in the first place, which in turn, helped sell devices.

Isn’t it telling that the exec has had to silence his own iPhone using these new tools? Isn’t that something of an admission of culpability here?

“Every time you pick up your phone, it means you’re taking your eyes off whoever you’re dealing with, are talking with, right?,” Cook continued. “And if you’re looking at your phone more than you’re looking at somebody else’s eyes, you’re doing the wrong thing,” he said. “We want to educate people on what they’re doing. This thing will improve through time, just like everything else that we do. We’ll innovate there as we do in other areas.”

“But basically, we don’t want people using their phones all the time. This has never been an objective for us,” said Cook.

Except, of course, for those 10 years when it was.

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Apple ad focuses on iPhone’s most marketable feature — privacy

Posted by | Apple, computing, digital media, digital rights, Facebook, hardware, human rights, identity management, iPhone, law, Mobile, privacy, TC, terms of service, Tim Cook, United States | No Comments

Apple is airing a new ad spot in primetime today. Focused on privacy, the spot is visually cued, with no dialog and a simple tagline: Privacy. That’s iPhone.

In a series of humorous vignettes, the message is driven home that sometimes you just want a little privacy. The spot has only one line of text otherwise, and it’s in keeping with Apple’s messaging on privacy over the long and short term. “If privacy matters in your life, it should matter to the phone your life is on.”

The spot will air tonight in primetime in the U.S. and extend through March Madness. It will then air in select other countries.

You’d have to be hiding under a rock not to have noticed Apple positioning privacy as a differentiating factor between itself and other companies. Beginning a few years ago, CEO Tim Cook began taking more and more public stances on what the company felt to be your “rights” to privacy on their platform and how that differed from other companies. The undercurrent being that Apple was able to take this stance because its first-party business relies on a relatively direct relationship with customers who purchase its hardware and, increasingly, its services.

This stands in contrast to the model of other tech giants like Google or Facebook that insert an interstitial layer of monetization strategy on top of that relationship in the forms of application of personal information about you (in somewhat anonymized fashion) to sell their platform to advertisers that in turn can sell to you better.

Turning the ethical high ground into a marketing strategy is not without its pitfalls, though, as Apple has discovered recently with a (now patched) high-profile FaceTime bug that allowed people to turn your phone into a listening device, Facebook’s manipulation of App Store permissions and the revelation that there was some long overdue house cleaning needed in its Enterprise Certificate program.

I did find it interesting that the iconography of the “Private Side” spot very, very closely associates the concepts of privacy and security. They are separate, but interrelated, obviously. This spot says these are one and the same. It’s hard to enforce privacy without security, of course, but in the mind of the public I think there is very little difference between the two.

The App Store itself, of course, still hosts apps from Google and Facebook among thousands of others that use personal data of yours in one form or another. Apple’s argument is that it protects the data you give to your phone aggressively by processing on the device, collecting minimal data, disconnecting that data from the user as much as possible and giving users as transparent a control interface as possible. All true. All far, far better efforts than the competition.

Still, there is room to run, I feel, when it comes to Apple adjudicating what should be considered a societal norm when it comes to the use of personal data on its platform. If it’s going to be the absolute arbiter of what flies on the world’s most profitable application marketplace, it might as well use that power to get a little more feisty with the bigcos (and littlecos) that make their living on our data.

I mention the issues Apple has had above not as a dig, though some might be inclined to view Apple integrating privacy with marketing as boldness bordering on hubris. I, personally, think there’s still a major difference between a company that has situational loss of privacy while having a systemic dedication to privacy and, well, most of the rest of the ecosystem which exists because they operate an “invasion of privacy as a service” business.

Basically, I think stating privacy is your mission is still supportable, even if you have bugs. But attempting to ignore that you host the data platforms that thrive on it is a tasty bit of prestidigitation.

But that might be a little too verbose as a tagline.

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Apple bans Facebook’s Research app that paid users for data

Posted by | Apple, Apps, Facebook, facebook research, Mark Zuckerberg, Mobile, Policy, privacy, Social, TC, Teens, Tim Cook, vpn | No Comments

In the wake of TechCrunch’s investigation yesterday, Apple blocked Facebook’s Research VPN app before the social network could voluntarily shut it down. The Research app asked users for root network access to all data passing through their phone in exchange for $20 per month. Apple tells TechCrunch that yesterday evening it revoked the Enterprise Certificate that allows Facebook to distribute the Research app without going through the App Store.

TechCrunch had reported that Facebook was breaking Apple’s policy that the Enterprise system is only for distributing internal corporate apps to employees, not paid external testers. That was actually before Facebook released a statement last night saying that it had shut down the iOS version of the Research program without mentioning that it was forced by Apple to do so.

TechCrunch’s investigation discovered that Facebook has been quietly operated the Research program on iOS and Android since 2016, recently under the name Project Atlas. It recruited 13 to 35 year olds, 5 percent of which were teenagers, with ads on Instagram and Snapchat and paid them a monthly fee plus referral bonuses to install Facebook’s Research app, the included VPN app that routes traffic to Facebook, and to ‘Trust’ the company with root network access to their phone. That lets Facebook pull in a user’s web browsing activity, what apps are on their phone and how they use them, and even decrypt their encrypted traffic. Facebook went so far as to ask users to screenshot and submit their Amazon order history. Facebook uses all this data to track competitors, assess trends, and plan its product roadmap.

Facebook was forced to remove its similar Onavo Protect app in August last year after Apple changed its policies to prohibit the VPN app’s data collection practices. But Facebook never shut down the Research app with the same functionality it was running in parallel. In fact, TechCrunch commissioned security expert Will Strafach to dig into the Facebook Research app, and we found that it featured tons of similar code and references to Onavo Protect. That means Facebook was purposefully disobeying the spirit of Apple’s 2018 privacy policy change while also abusing the Enterprise Certificate program.

Sources tell us that Apple revoking Facebook’s Enterprise Certificate has broken all of the company’s legitimate employee-only apps. Those include pre-launch internal-testing versions of Facebook and Instagram, as well as the employee apps for coordinating office collaboration, commutes, seeing the day’s lunch schedule, and more. That’s causing mayhem at Facebook, disrupting their daily work flow and ability to do product development. We predicted yesterday that Apple could take this drastic step to punish Facebook much harder than just removing its Research app. The disruption will translate into a huge loss of productivity for Facebook’s 33,000 employees.

[Update: Facebook later confirmed to TechCrunch that its internal apps were broken by Apple’s punishment and that it’s in talks with Apple to try to resolve the issue and get their employee tools running again.]

For reference, Facebook’s main iOS app still functions normally. Also, you can’t get paid for installing Onavo Protect on Android, only for the Facebook Research app. And Facebook isn’t the only one violating Apple’s Enterprise Certificate policy, as TechCrunch discovered Google’s Screenwise Meter surveillance app breaks the rules too.

This morning, Apple informed us it had banned Facebook’s Research app yesterday before the social network seemingly pulled it voluntarily. Apple provided us with this strongly worded statement condemning the social network’s behavior:

“We designed our Enterprise Developer Program solely for the internal distribution of apps within an organization. Facebook has been using their membership to distribute a data-collecting app to consumers, which is a clear breach of their agreement with Apple. Any developer using their enterprise certificates to distribute apps to consumers will have their certificates revoked, which is what we did in this case to protect our users and their data.”

That comes in direct contradiction to Facebook’s initial response to our investigation. Facebook claimed it was in alignment with Apple’s Enterprise Certificate policy and that the program was no different than a focus group.

Seven hours later, a Facebook spokesperson said it was pulling its Research program from iOS without mentioning that Apple forced it to do so, and issued this statement disputing the characterization of our story:

“Key facts about this market research program are being ignored. Despite early reports, there was nothing ‘secret’ about this; it was literally called the Facebook Research App. It wasn’t ‘spying’ as all of the people who signed up to participate went through a clear on-boarding process asking for their permission and were paid to participate. Finally, less than 5 percent of the people who chose to participate in this market research program were teens. All of them with signed parental consent forms.”

We refute those accusations by Facebook. As we wrote yesterday night, Facebook did not publicly promote the Research VPN itself and used intermediaries that often didn’t disclose Facebook’s involvement until users had begun the signup process. While users were given clear instructions and warnings, the program never stresses nor mentions the full extent of the data Facebook can collect through the VPN. A small fraction of the users paid may have been teens, but we stand by the newsworthiness of its choice not to exclude minors from this data collection initiative.

Senator Mark Warner has since called on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to support legislation requiring individual informed consent for market research initiatives like Facebook Research. Meanwhile, Senator Richard Blumenthal issued a fierce statement that “Wiretapping teens is not research, and it should never be permissible.”

The situation will surely worsen the relationship between Facebook and Apple after years of mounting animosity between the tech giants. Apple’s Tim Cook has repeatedly criticized Facebook’s data collection practices, and Zuckerberg has countered that it offers products for free for everyone rather than making products few can afford like Apple. Flared tensions could see Facebook receive less promotion in the App Store, fewer integrations into iOS, and more jabs from Cook. Meanwhile, the world sees Facebook as having been caught red-handed threatening user privacy and breaking Apple policy.

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Yep, iPhone revenue is down

Posted by | Apple, Earnings, hardware, iPhone, Mobile, Tim Cook | No Comments

Apple’s Q1 earnings are in, and things don’t look too rosy for the iPhone. Revenue for the handset has declined 15 percent year over year for the quarter. It’s a pretty hefty drop for a device that’s been flying high for so long, but you can’t say Apple didn’t warn us. Earlier this month, Tim Cook noted that the company was lowering its guidance, thanks in no small part to smartphone figures.

In its earlier report, the company put much of the blame at the feet of the Chinese market. There are a lot of factors on that front, including slowing economic growth in the world’s largest smartphone market, and a general trend toward prolonged upgrade cycles, as users are holding onto devices for longer. That’s been a large part of the reason that smartphone sales are down nearly across the board, marking the first contraction of the category since analysts began tracking it. 

Last year’s arrival of the XS marked a less dramatic refresh than the iPhone X, but Apple also introduced a new budget handset with the XR. That device has reportedly been a disappointment, though Apple has repeatedly noted that the device has been the best selling iPhone since its October launch.

Notably, those numbers are offset somewhat by growth in other categories. The iPad grew 17 percent on the strength of new models, while Mac/Wearables and Home/Accessories each grew, at 9 and 33 percent, respectively. Services, meanwhile, saw the biggest uptick at 19 percent to $10.9 billion — an all-time high for the category.

“While it was disappointing to miss our revenue guidance, we manage Apple for the long term, and this quarter’s results demonstrate that the underlying strength of our business runs deep and wide,” Cook said in a statement. “Our active installed base of devices reached an all-time high of 1.4 billion in the first quarter, growing in each of our geographic segments. That’s a great testament to the satisfaction and loyalty of our customers, and it’s driving our Services business to new records thanks to our large and fast-growing ecosystem.”

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Apple’s increasingly tricky international trade-offs

Posted by | Advertising Tech, Android, Apple, apple inc, Asia, Baidu, Bing, China, DuckDuckGo, Europe, France, Google, iOS, iPhone, Mobile, privacy, Qwant, safari, search engine, search engines, siri, smartphone, smartphones, TC, Tim Cook, United States, Yahoo | No Comments

Far from Apple’s troubles in emerging markets and China, the company is attracting the ire of what should really be a core supporter demographic naturally aligned with the pro-privacy stance CEO Tim Cook has made into his public soapbox in recent years — but which is instead crying foul over perceived hypocrisy.

The problem for this subset of otherwise loyal European iPhone users is that Apple isn’t offering enough privacy.

These users want more choice over key elements such as the search engine that can be set as the default in Safari on iOS (Apple currently offers four choices: Google, Yahoo, Bing and DuckDuckGo, all U.S. search engines; and with ad tech giant Google set as the default).

It is also being called out over other default settings that undermine its claims to follow a privacy by design philosophy. Such as the iOS location services setting which, once enabled, non-transparently flip an associated sub-menu of settings — including location-based Apple ads. Yet bundled consent is never the same as informed consent…

6/ and @Apple also defaults to ON, approx 13 location settings the moment a user enables location settings 🤔 that includes using YOUR location to support APPLE’s advertising business interests & $$$. By ‘enabling location based services’ you give your consent to this 🤔@tim_cook pic.twitter.com/scYSg94QgY

— Privacy Matters (@PrivacyMatters) October 19, 2018

As the saying goes you can’t please all of the people all of the time. But the new normal of a saturated smartphone market is imposing new pressures that will require a reconfiguration of approach.

Certainly the challenges of revenue growth and user retention are only going to step up from here on in. So keeping an otherwise loyal base of users happy and — crucially — feeling listened to and well served is going to be more and more important for the tech giant as the back and forth business of services becomes, well, essential to its fortunes going forward.

(At least barring some miracle new piece of Apple hardware — yet to be unboxed but which somehow rekindles smartphone-level demand afresh. That’s highly unlikely in any medium term timeframe given how versatile and capable the smartphone remains; ergo Apple’s greatest success is now Apple’s biggest challenge.)

With smartphone hardware replacement cycles slowing, the pressure on Cook to accelerate services revenue naturally steps up — which could in turn increase pressure on the core principles Cupertino likes to flash around.

Yet without principles there can be no brand premium for Apple to command. So that way ruin absolutely lies.

Control shift

It’s true that controlling the iOS experience by applying certain limits to deliver mainstream consumer friendly hardware served Apple well for years. But it’s also true iOS has grown in complexity over time having dropped some of its control freakery.

Elements that were previously locked down have been opened up — like the keyboard, for instance, allowing for third party keyboard apps to be installed by users that wish to rethink how they type.

This shift means the imposed limit on which search engines users can choose to set as an iOS default looks increasingly hard for Apple to justify from a user experience point of view.

Though of course from a business PoV Apple benefits by being able to charge Google a large sum of money to remain in the plum search default spot. (Reportedly a very large sum, though claims that the 2018 figure was $9BN have not been confirmed. Unsurprisingly neither party wants to talk about the terms of the transaction.)

The problem for Apple is that indirectly benefiting from Google eroding the user privacy it claims to champion — by letting the ad tech giant pay it to suck up iOS users’ search queries by default — is hardly consistent messaging.

Not when privacy is increasingly central to the premium the Apple brand commands.

Cook has also made a point of strongly and publicly attacking the ‘data industrial complex‘. Yet without mentioning the inconvenient side-note that Apple also engages in trading user data for profit in some instances, albeit indirectly.

In 2017 Apple switched from using Bing to Google for Siri web search results. So even as it has stepped up its rhetoric around user privacy it has deepened its business relationship with one of the Western Internet’s primary data suckers.

All of which makes for a very easy charge of hypocrisy.

Of course Apple offers iOS users a non-tracking search engine choice, DuckDuckGo, as an alternative choice — and has done so since 2014’s iOS 8.

Its support for a growing but still very niche product in what are mainstream consumer devices is an example of Apple being true to its word and actively championing privacy.

The presence of the DDG startup alongside three data-mining tech giants has allowed those ‘in the know’ iOS users to flip the bird at Google for years, meaning Apple has kept privacy conscious consumers buying its products (if not fully on side with all its business choices).

But that sort of compromise position looks increasingly difficult for Apple to defend.

Not if it wants privacy to be the clear blue water that differentiates its brand in an era of increasingly cut-throat and cut-price Android -powered smartphone competition that’s serving up much the same features at a lower up-front price thanks to all the embedded data-suckers.

There is also the not-so-small matter of the inflating $1,000+ price-tags on Apple’s top-of-the-range iPhones. $1,000+ for a smartphone that isn’t selling your data by default might still sound very pricy but at least you’d be getting something more than just shiny glass for all those extra dollars. But the iPhone isn’t actually that phone. Not by default.

Apple may be taking a view that the most privacy sensitive iPhone users are effectively a captive market with little option but to buy iOS hardware, given the Google-flavored Android competition. Which is true but also wouldn’t bode well for the chances of Apple upselling more services to these people to drive replacement revenue in a saturated smartphone market.

Offending those consumers who otherwise could be your very best, most committed and bought in users seems short-sighted and short-termist to say the least.

Although removing Google as the default search provider in markets where it dominates would obviously go massively against the mainstream grain that Apple’s business exists to serve.

This logic says Google is in the default position because, for most Internet users, Google search remains their default.

Indeed, Cook rolled out this exact line late last year when asked to defend the arrangement in an interview with Axios on HBO — saying: “I think their search engine is the best.”

He also flagged various pro-privacy features Apple has baked into its software in recent years, such as private browsing mode and smart tracker prevention, which he said work against the data suckers.

Albeit, that’s a bit like saying you’ve scattered a few garlic cloves around the house after inviting the thirsty vampire inside. And Cook readily admitted the arrangement isn’t “perfect”.

Clearly it’s a trade off. But Apple benefitting financially is what makes this particular trade-off whiff.

It implies Apple does indeed have an eye on quarterly balance sheets, and the increasingly important services line item specifically, in continuing this imperfect but lucrative arrangement — rather than taking a longer term view as the company purports to, per Cook’s letter to shareholders this week; in which he wrote: “We manage Apple for the long term, and Apple has always used periods of adversity to re-examine our approach, to take advantage of our culture of flexibility, adaptability and creativity, and to emerge better as a result.”

If Google’s search product is the best and Apple wants to take the moral high ground over privacy by decrying the surveillance industrial complex it could maintain the default arrangement in service to its mainstream base but donate Google’s billions to consumer and digital rights groups that fight to uphold and strengthen the privacy laws that people-profiling ad tech giants are butting hard against.

Apple’s shareholders might not like that medicine, though.

More palatable for investors would be for Apple to offer a broader choice of alternative search engines, thereby widening the playing field and opening up to more pro-privacy Google alternatives.

It could also design this choice in a way that flags up the trade-off to its millions of users. Such as, during device set-up, proactively asking users whether they want to keep their Internet searches private by default or use Google?

When put like that rather more people than you imagine might choose not to opt for Google to be their search default.

Non-tracking search engine DDG has been growing steadily for years, for example, hitting 30M daily searches last fall — with year-on-year growth of ~50%.

Given the terms of the Apple-Google arrangement sit under an NDA (as indeed all these arrangements do; DDG told us it couldn’t share any details about its own arrangement with Apple, for e.g.) it’s not clear whether one of Google’s conditions requires there be a limit on how many other search engines iOS users can pick from.

But it’s at least a possibility that Google is paying Apple to limit how many rivals sit in the list of competitors iOS users can pick out an alternative default. (It has, after all, recently been spanked in Europe for anti-competitive contractual limits imposed on Android OEMs to limit their ability to use alternatives to Google products, including search. So you could say Google has history where search is concerned.)

Equally, should Google actually relaunch a search product in China — as it’s controversially been toying with doing — it’s likely the company would push Apple to give it the default slot there too.

Though Apple would have more reason to push back, given Google would likely remain a minnow in that market. (Apple currently defaults to local search giant Baidu for iOS users in China.)

So even the current picture around search on iOS is a little more fuzzy than Cook likes to make out.

Local flavor

China is an interesting case, because if you look at Apple’s growth challenges in that market you could come to a very different conclusion vis-a-vis the power of privacy as a brand premium.

In China it’s convenience, via the do-it-all ‘Swiss army knife’ WeChat platform, that’s apparently the driving consumer force — and now also a headwind for Apple’s business there.

At the same time, the idea of users in the market having any kind of privacy online — when Internet surveillance has been imposed and ‘normalized’ by the state — is essentially impossible to imagine.

Yet Apple continues doing business in China, netting it further charges of hypocrisy.

Its revised guidance this week merely spotlights how important China and emerging markets are to its business fortunes. A principled pull-out hardly looks to be on the cards.

All of which underscores growing emerging market pressures on Apple that might push harder against its stated principles. What price privacy indeed?

It’s clear that carving out growth in a saturated smartphone market is going to be an increasingly tricky business for all players, with the risk of fresh trade-offs and pitfalls looming especially for Apple.

Negotiating this terrain certainly demands a fresh approach, as Cook implies is on his mind, per the shareholder letter.

Arguably the new normal may also call for an increasingly localized approach as a way to differentiate in a saturated and samey smartphone market.

The old Apple ‘one-sized fits all’ philosophy is already very outdated for some users and risks being caught flat-footed on a growing number of fronts — be that if your measure is software ‘innovation’ or a principled position on privacy.

An arbitrary limit on the choice of search engine your users can pick seems a telling example. Why not offer iOS users a free choice?

Or are Google’s billions really standing in the way of that?

It’s certainly an odd situation that iPhone owners in France, say, can pick from a wide range of keyboard apps — from mainstream names to superficial bling-focused glitter and/or neon LED keyboard skins or indeed emoji and GIF-obsessed keyboards — but if they want to use locally developed pro-privacy search engine Qwant on their phone’s native browser they have to tediously surf to the company’s webpage every time they want to look something up.

Google search might be the best for a median average ‘global’ (excluding China) iOS user but in an age of increasingly self-focused and self-centred technology, with ever more demanding consumers, there’s really no argument against letting people who want to choose for themselves.

In Europe there’s also the updated data protection framework, GDPR, to consider. Which may yet rework some mainstream ad tech business models.

On this front Qwant questions how even non-tracking rival DDG can protect users’ searches from government surveillance given its use of AWS cloud hosting and the U.S. Cloud Act. (Though, responding to a discussion thread about the issue on Github two years ago, DDG’s founder noted it has servers around the world, writing: “If you are in Europe you will be connected to our European servers.” He also reiterated that DDG does not collect any personal data from users — thereby limiting what could be extracted from AWS via the Act.)

Asked what reception it’s had when asking about getting its search engine on the Safari iOS list, Qwant told us the line that’s been (indirectly) fed back to it is “we are too European according to Apple”. (Apple declined to comment on the search choices it offers iOS users.)

“I have to work a lot to be more American,” Qwant co-founder and CEO Eric Leandri told us, summing up the smoke signals coming out of Cupertino.

“I understand that Apple wants to give the same kind of experience to their customers… but I would say that if I was Apple now, based on the politics that I want to follow — about protecting the privacy of customers — I think it would be great to start thinking about Europe as a market where people have a different point of view on their data,” he continued.

“Apple has done a lot of work to, for example, not let applications give data to each by a very strict [anti-tracking policy]; Apple has done a lot of work to guarantee that cookies and tracking is super difficult on iOS; and now the last problem of Apple is Google search.”

“So I hope that Apple will look at our proposal in a different way — not just one-fits-all. Because we don’t think that one-fits-all today,” he added.

Qwant too, then, is hoping for a better Apple to emerge as a result of a little market adversity.

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Tim Cook to Apple staff: $1TR in shareholder value isn’t what drives us

Posted by | Apple, apple inc, Apps, Mobile, Steve Jobs, Tim Cook, trillion | No Comments

How should you feel to know your employer is far, far richer than Croesus?

As Apple CEO Tim Cook tells it — in a memo to staff, obtained by BuzzFeed News, re: yesterday’s news that the computer company Steve Jobs founded back in 1976 is now worth more than $1,000,000,000,000 — you should feel A) pretty stoked that your labor has helped achieve a significant financial milestone but also B) know it’s not a success metric to get hung up about because it’s the passion for innovation and creation (not the towering mounds of gold) that really counts and so C) please, after taking a moment, remember to get back to work.

Here’s what Cook actually wrote to Apple’s global “team” of circa 123,000 employees:

Team,

Today Apple passed a significant milestone. At our closing share price of $207.39, the stock market now values Apple at more than $1 trillion. While we have much to be proud of in this achievement, it’s not the most important measure of our success. Financial returns are simply the result of Apple’s innovation, putting our products and customers first, and always staying true to our values.

It’s you, our team, that makes Apple great and our success is due to your hard work, dedication and passion. I am deeply humbled by what you do, and it’s the privilege of a lifetime to work alongside you. I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for all the late hours and extra trips, all the times you refuse to settle for anything less than excellence in our work together.

Let’s take this moment to thank our customers, our suppliers and business partners, the Apple developer community, our coworkers and all those who came before us at this remarkable company.

Steve founded Apple on the belief that the power of human creativity can solve even the biggest challenges — and that the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do. In today’s world, our mission is more important than ever. Our products not only create moments of surprise and delight, they empower people all around the globe to enrich their lives and the lives of others.

Just as Steve always did in moments like this, we should all look forward to Apple’s bright future and the great work we’ll do together.

Tim

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