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Can Apple compete on privacy?

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Apple’s focus on design and details or the tight integration of its silicon, software, and services has effectively countered traditional competitors such as Dell, Palm, and Samsung. For some time, though, Google has been the company’s main competitive threat. Unlike Apple’s 90s nemesis, Microsoft, which would diminish Apple’s standing with missing or inferior versions of its apps for the Mac, Google has broadly and consistently supported the iPhone with apps that are typically at least at parity with those for Android. And it directly contributes to Apple’s bottom line via a 10-figure check that secures its standing as the iPhone’s default search engine. With enemies like that, who needs friends?

But Google’s embrace of Apple’s platforms is less of a hug and more of a squeeze to juice the attention of iPhone users who represent a highly desirable demographic for Google’s advertising business. Paired with Android users, they provide a near census of smartphone users. And, just as Microsoft did with its PC apps and Windows, Google’s mix of juggernaut apps and Android remove the friction for people to switch between iOS and Android, especially if they are tempted by such advances as incredible low-light photography that Apple is sure to answer.

And so, Apple, which does not rely on advertising revenue, has increasingly been turning up the volume on its privacy stance as a differentiator, first in government and industry communications and, more recently, directly to consumers. Google has taken notice, answering Apple’s assertion that privacy is a “basic human right” with the comeback that it should not be a luxury good. Translating the rhetoric into implementation, Google has stepped up the number and visibility of its out-out controls. Apple, though, will typically abstain from collecting personal information in the first place. Furthermore, it has taken more aggressive measures to protect from things that rate relatively low on the creepiness scale (marketers who track you across the web) to things that rate very high (hackers accessing unencrypted home security camera footage).

Apple’s privacy campaign has already had an impact in terms of forcing the competition to pay closer attention to their disclosure and controls. It is unlikely to move the needle in terms of market share, but Apple can only gain as awareness of the great data tradeoff of targeted advertising grows and missteps in executing it continues. It should also be more effective as a retention tool for anyone who has not already been locked into Apple’s milieu through its self-reinforcing portfolio of devices and growing family of services.

Furthermore, while the smartphone market is mature, whatever challenges it as an emerging platform will likely raise even more profound privacy concerns. Already, wearables measure our pulse and assess whether we’ve fallen, and the kind of personal data that could be generated by measuring exactly what you’re looking at via augmented reality gear could make smartphone-generated data seem crude by comparison.

And there’s another potential benefit to Apple’s privacy campaign, one that the company has developed since it first stepped up its advocacy. While the company has taken its message to consumers, it still attracts the scrutiny of regulators. CEO Tim Cook has rightly argued that, even though Apple is a “big tech” company, it is not in the same bucket of regulatory concerns as Facebook and Google. A public-facing campaign, while ostensibly aimed at consumers, could also help raise awareness among regulators that Apple shares many concerns about how private data is collected and used. But, at least for users of Apple products, it can do something about it.

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