The true Apple revolution: Selling products, not customer data

Read between the lines for the biggest takeaway from WWDC: Apple's stance on data mining

The true Apple revolution: Selling products, not customer data

Apple CEO Tim Cook on stage at last year's WWDC.

Credit: REUTERS /Robert Galbraith

From Doritos to multiplayer online games, today’s businesses have two traits in common: They increasingly depend upon data, and they use that data to create addiction to their products.

In technology, though, often companies engage addictions by making the products free, or apparently so. From Instagram to Pinterest, consumers aren’t asked to pay for the product. We pay, instead, with our data.

This is precisely what makes Apple so different and so refreshing. While Apple didn’t announce much in the way of groundbreaking technology or services at WWDC this week, it’s what it didn’t announce that makes it so special.

Apple didn’t announce any intention of selling us -- quite the opposite.

An industry intent on addiction

Ours is seemingly an industry that has forgotten how to sell products. Sure, old-school vendors like Oracle and IBM continue to peddle licenses with a glimmer of subscription revenue to keep them young, but the new kids on the tech block don’t sell products at all.

Instead, they sell us -- or advertising, if you will. But the reason we’re asked to part with copious amounts of personal data is so “the best minds of [our] generation [can] think about how to make people click ads,” as then Facebook executive Jeff Hammerbacher once declared.

Every algorithm is tuned to keep us clicking. And ever-increasing torrents of data are used to inspire the algorithms, data we give so that we can see pretty pictures, send disappearing images, and more.

Of course, it’s not only Web companies like Facebook that have this goal. Gaming companies do the same. I’ve written before about how games like Graal “optimize” my son’s gaming experience to keep him playing, making in-app purchases to empty my bank account and fill theirs. To them, he’s a “whale” to be plundered, and the plunder is paid for with data and algorithms.

Even if we get outside tech for a minute, things aren’t much better. The food industry, for its part, crunches massive quantities of data to “create the greatest amount of crave“ or “bliss point,” as the industry has come to call it, according to an exceptional New York Times article. The bliss point is the ideal level of saltiness, sweetness, and so on to ensure “no one can eat just one” -- that is, to create addiction.

Or, as investigative reporter Michael Moss says, “What I found, over four years of research and reporting, was a conscious effort -- taking place in labs and marketing meetings and grocery-store aisles -- to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive.” The tobacco industry, in other words, has nothing on Lucky Charms and Lunchables.

Which is why Apple is so impressive.

Apple sells experience, not addiction

At WWDC, Apple went through the motions of declaring itself revolutionary. After releasing a somewhat pedestrian spin on Spotify (Apple Music), Apple CEO Tim Cook’s hubris filled San Francisco’s Moscone Center: “Apple Music will change the way you experience music forever.”

Well, no, it won’t. Spotify and others have already done that. In fact, at most, as The Economist notes, “Apple is likely to simply convert people who used to pay for downloads into streamers, rather than increase the population of those paying for music.” Ho. Hum.

Indeed, though Apple has repeatedly told us how “revolutionary” its products have been through the years, they usually aren’t. Instead, they’re often better versions of what’s already available.

But what is revolutionary is Apple’s dogged, stubborn resistance to turning its customers into dupes. As Cook declared recently:

We don't think you should ever have to trade it for a service you think is free but actually comes at a very high cost. This is especially true now that we're storing data about our health, our finances, and our homes on our devices.
We believe the customer should be in control of their own information. You might like these so-called free services, but we don't think they're worth having your email, your search history and now even your family photos data mined and sold off for god knows what advertising purpose. And we think some day, customers will see this for what it is.

Some may say it’s easy for Cook, whose company sells actual products, to demonize the Googles of the world for “gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetize it.” That’s the point.

Apple has elected to sell actual products to people, rather than turning people into products. In our world today, this is revolutionary -- and so, so refreshing.

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