Copying Google is not the only viable technology strategy

This by Dustin Curtis is an odd piece. The implication is that the one and only way to be a successful tech company is to imitate Google. But challenging Google on its own terms is probably a mistake. It makes sense to differentiate, and this is what Apple is doing.

It is true that there are some products that benefit from collecting data on individual users and/or aggregating it with data from many other users. But why does Apple have to do those things? Apple devices work just fine with Google services. Despite the heated words Apple and Google executives might utter about each other in public, Apple has no incentive to keep Google services off its platform, and Google has every incentive to continue making its services available to Apple users. (By contrast, it’s a pain to use non-Google services on Android. It’s possible–I’ve done it–but you often need add-on software even to sync ) The companies may be rivals but their business models are complementary–though it benefits from commoditized hardware, Google does not need all hardware to become commoditized. Certainly it may be somewhat disingenuous of Apple to position itself as “the privacy company” when it knows that most of its customers use Google products. But this is mostly marketing. Today, the strategy of “Apple hardware (and operating systems) with Google services” works better than ever. Since neither company needs the other to fail, each company can take a differentiated strategy while tacitly working together.

Second, again, it is true that there are some products that benefit from collecting data on individual users and/or aggregating it with data from many other users. But this is not true of all products. How exactly would iMessage be better if Apple was able to read people’s text messages? Would Apple’s mobile SOCs be more power efficient? Would Apple Pay be better if Apple scanned and tracked all your purchases? (Maybe in some ways–Apple could send you fun coupons!)

I believe Curtis is wrong to say that people don’t mind companies they trust collecting their data and that they care about security, not privacy. Privacy, in and of itself, is a feature. There are some kinds of data–health and payment data come to mind–where many people, myself included, would rather than no company of any kind stored, tracked, or aggregated anything at all. This is not to say Apple’s solutions are great–storing all your health data on your phone and only your phone seems strange to me–but I don’t think that a Facebook or Google approach to health data would be preferable. I’m not sure what the right answer is. But Apple may be on to something when it comes to the non-storage of the most sensitive user information, provided its methods don’t result in people just constantly losing access to all their data.

Apple’s services need to improve in a lot of ways, and most of the products Google does better than anyone else are exactly those products that benefit from data aggregation: Search, Maps, machine translation, voice recognition, predictive text/auto-complete, spam filtering, self-driving cards, and so on. But where Apple most falls short on cloud services it’s not because it’s not collecting enough user data. It’s because basic shit breaks, like syncing. Yes, because Apple does not profit from the collection of user data like Google does, it doesn’t have the incentive to invest in cloud infrastructure to the same extent. Yet its cloud failings are fundamentally engineering problems, not “lack of user data” problems. There are other ways than “collect more user data” for Apple to ensure it has the incentive to improve its services.

I can think of a number of Apple products that would be better if Apple were more Googly, e.g., Siri and Apple Maps. But these are side issues and it is not necessary to use either service to be an Apple customer. Apple’s core businesses–creating software ecosystems, custom hardware (including custom silicon), platforms for third-party developers, products that mesh together seamlessly, and so on–are exactly what Tim Cook says they are: products that are designed to just be good products, that get people to hand over cash money in exchange. Whether or not you like those products is your choice–Apple’s ecosystem is not to everyone’s taste–but to suggest that the only way for the world’s most valuable company to succeed is to copy Google is strange.

Finally, most of the really cool technologies that I can imagine and thing the world needs–cheap desalinization, planetary-scale carbon dioxide scrubbers, clean energy, better batteries, etc–have nothing to do with Internet-scale aggregation of information about people’s personal habits. Setting up Google as the one true path–even though I use its products constantly and like them a lot–seems downright bizarre in this context.