Who is losing in the “war” that broke out among Apple, Facebook, and Google this week? It is certainly not you or me; it is unambiguously two misbehaving tech giants.
Facebook and Google exploited a feature intended for “enterprise developers” to distribute apps that collect large amounts of data on private users, TechCrunch first reported. Both companies paid users to install the apps and have their behavior meticulously tracked. These “research” apps violated Apple’s terms, leading the iPhone maker to revoke Google and Facebook’s enterprise certificates, which disabled the data-collecting apps on iOS in addition to internal apps used by employees at the two companies. (Apple restored access to Facebook’s internal apps on Thursday and was working on Google’s according to the New York Times.)
Apple’s maneuver has been characterized by some as a chilling demonstration of the company’s power. Verge editor-in-chief Nilay Patel suggested in a tweet that it was cause for concern: First, they came for our enterprise certificates, then… well, what, exactly?
The implication that Apple is exhibiting some monopolistic urge to gutshot Facebook and Google makes close to zero sense. The events of this week will not affect their bottom lines, and Apple could have taken much more drastic action to lock down iOS — as it has before. That it didn’t tells us everything about one of the most important systems of checks and balances in consumer technology today.
Apple’s power only goes so far. It needs to offer Facebook and Google apps, because billions of people want them.
Consider that Apple didn’t remove any Facebook or Google apps from its App Store. Revoking the enterprise certificates may have disabled the iOS research apps and internal company functions, like the Gbus program that helps Google employees shuttle around their campus, but that’s no big deal. The data harvesting continued in the usual places — your Facebook News Feed and Google search, for example.
(Not for nothing, the research apps remain available on Android, which enjoys a gargantuan market share lead over iOS worldwide.)
But let’s take the fears to their logical conclusion: What if Apple, in the ultimate flex of its rippling platform muscle, had decided to nuke every Facebook and Google app on iOS? The two companies would continue to offer products via Android, desktop, and mobile browser. Without the ability to download Facebook and Google apps, many iOS users would migrate to an Android device manufactured by one of many rivals.
Apple’s power only goes so far. It needs to offer Facebook and Google apps because billions of people want them. Checks and balances exist between the tech giants; it’s like a twisted harmony tuned to the sound of personalized ads flitting across your LCD.
Note, however, that Apple has exercised its silencing power before. It purged Civil War games containing confederate iconography. It’s refused to host an app that reports on U.S. drone strikes abroad. There is no pornography on the App Store nor emulators that would let you play a pirated Super Nintendo game. These are examples of censorship — making it harder for a product manager with Google stock options to ride the Gbus isn’t.
I am confident that Facebook, which just reported a quarterly profit of $6.88 billion, could have found a way to beta-test Messenger and help its employees to order lunch while its iOS enterprise certificate was revoked. An Instagram product designer said as much Thursday on Twitter:
Yes, there is acrimony between Apple and the companies that more aggressively profit off user data, but that’s just as well: People should want these companies at odds rather than in agreement. They are powerful but not yet monolithic, and competition will only benefit the rest of us.
The fantasy of an iPhone without these products also isn’t so bad, even if it’s only plausible in a parallel universe where investors didn’t short-circuit over a company like Apple making a few tens of billions of dollars less than expected. When the iPhone launched, it did so without an App Store. The device did far less, and it did so through select programs that came loaded onto the device. Mostly, it was a telephone that was more pleasant to browse the web with than feature phones of the era.
It’s hard to conceive of now, but maybe this was okay. It’s a reminder that our online lives could be something other than a homogenized morass of data-farmed “social” experiences. Imagine the iPhone as the locked-down, relatively distraction-free alternative to the app-packed Android. Perhaps fewer people would buy one — think of BlackBerry before the brand was attached to Android phones in 2015 — but it’s possible the world would keep turning.
That will never happen now, of course. The point is that while there are many valid concerns about rising monopolies in tech, the battleground over the smartphone in your palm remains, shall we say, hot.
All of this should continue to be examined. I’d much rather we have hand-wringing than blind acceptance. But the legitimate cause for concern here was unethical behavior from data-hungry Facebook and Google, not the defense mounted by Apple, limply, over 48 hours. At the end of the day, the wheels are still on the Gbus, and the machine moves forward.