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So Apple doesn’t collect as much data as Google. Maybe it should

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Apple CEO Tim Cook’s Wednesday-night privacy manifesto might have succeeded in placating consumers wary after the recent celebrity iCloud-hacking scandal, but it was less successful as a swipe (and a not-too-subtle one at that) at the company’s fiercest rival, Google. Apple might want to paint Google as the poster boy for big data and ad-supported services, but that doesn’t make Google’s strategy any worse or mean that Apple isn’t picking and choosing when to follow the same strategy itself.

Missing amid all the talk about the types of data [company]Apple[/company] doesn’t collect or analyze is any reference to the benefits that derive from a company’s practice of analyzing user data. This isn’t a love letter to [company]Google[/company], so we can spare the details of its various products and features. But suffice it to say that as the demands on our time and attention continue to increase — and we start strapping computers to our bodies as well as carrying them in our pockets and messenger bags, and placing them on our desk — we might come to appreciate Google’s approach to automation and personalization more than we ever thought we could.

(For a nice take on how data could change our traveling experiences for the better, check out Gigaom founder Om Malik’s recent blog post on the topic.)

Yes, there are some serious, serious, serious issues to consider with all of this — privacy, filter bubbles and the changing experience of what it means to be human among them. (For Android users, looking at your location history map in Google can be downright scary.) But those are philosophical debates that arise with all new technologies and that will evolve over time. They deserve a lot of attention, and we might even decide as a society that certain rewards aren’t worth the risk, but Apple’s decision not to collect certain data probably isn’t going to move the needle much.

Look, I traveled from San Francisco to Las Vegas one day.
Look, I traveled from San Francisco to Las Vegas one day.

In part, this is because Cook’s letter is a little misleading, I believe. Apple doesn’t have to collect user data because Apple doesn’t build the types of applications that collect that data. Search in Safari is powered by Google, Microsoft or Yahoo. The App Store — historically one of the greatest advantages of the iOS platform — is full of apps, including those from Google, that, despite some checks put in place by Apple, still collect all sorts of personal data. Many of those companies might be far less concerned about privacy and security than is Apple (or Google).

I posited, and still believe, that Apple bought Twitter firehose grantee Topsy last year in order to get access to the types of behavioral and language data it wouldn’t otherwise get — because it doesn’t operate a search engine or social network — in order to improve its capabilities in areas such as trend analysis and natural language processing.

[pullquote person=”” attribution=””]Apple doesn’t have to collect user data because Apple doesn’t build the types of applications that collect that data.[/pullquote]

Cook reiterated the banality that users of free online services aren’t really the users, they’re the products. “But at Apple,” he added, “we believe a great customer experience shouldn’t come at the expense of your privacy.” Only the company does run an advertising network in order to support free iTunes Radio and free apps in its App Store.

And despite an apparent allegation to the contrary in Cook’s letter, Google doesn’t actually “sell” user data either. Like Apple, it serves ads for users based on profiles it has created based on its own stores of user data (albeit a lot more data than Apple uses).

Meanwhile, while Apple is known for high device and cloud-storage prices, and a product-release cycle that encourages consumers to buy new devices every year, Google’s ad-supported model has led to free Gmail and 30 gigabytes of cloud storage. Upgrading storage capacity on Google Drive costs half of what it does on Apple iCloud.

Credit: Apple
Credit: Apple

Perhaps that’s because Apple apparently also stores customer data in other cloud platforms. “If we use third-party vendors to store your data, we encrypt it and never give them the keys,” Cook writes in the section on iCloud, possibly a reference to Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services, which the company has been rumored for years to be using.

Businessweek ran an article on Thursday suggesting that Android users shouldn’t be tempted by the new iPhones because the gap between them and high-end Android phones, and between the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store, is minimal and closing. It’s not great news for Apple if consumers are doing the same math and coming to the same conclusions.

In that sense, it’s smart for Apple to draw sharp distinctions between the two companies, although it’s possible consumers won’t actually see too much difference between them. Or it’s possible they’ll see the differences and throw caution to the wind nonetheless, opting for the one sucking up a lot more data but promising a smarter experience.

22 Responses to “So Apple doesn’t collect as much data as Google. Maybe it should”

  1. Wallt Mackinley

    I take issue with your points about privacy, but either forgetfulness or ignorance of the different between Apple and Google when their paths in relation to data cross. You wrote: “Google’s ad-supported model has led to free Gmail and 30 gigabytes of cloud storage.” …however, Apple does not rifle through my email or my messages in order to serve me ads. You allege that serving ads is the only way Google is different, when in fact Google provides a free service in exchange for complete sacrifice of privacy, whereas Tim Cook is saying Apple isn’t collecting that data, and comparing his company to Google is entirely apropos given this difference.

    To me, in an article detailing how Apple handles data it is unfair to compare them to Google, chastise the Apple for the way Tim Cook phrases a letter about data privacy, and then neglect to include key facts surrounding each company utilizes or handles that data.

  2. Very disturbing that the ad model is so widespread. They have basically ruined most TV, had a very negative impact on sports, turned the web into a sales tour and made an industry of doing in privacy in exchange for “free” goods. You can’t walk down a street without being blasted by what amounts to legal brainwashing all in support of selling more …

  3. BrooksTalley++

    Exactly. Google gets 95% of revenue from Ads. Their model is all about selling its customers data. As such their products tend to follow a “good enough and cheap” model. Because making them better rarely helps sell more Ads. As it turns out there are lots of people who like free services in return for their personal data.

    I started using google drive. After 4 years, it is still nowhere near as polished as Dropbox, despite google’s large resources. But it doesn’t have to be, it is cheap or free. Google has a history of turning weekend hacks into products and keeping them in beta for years. In the end, it probably doesn’t change the number of users joining their service if they make it any better.

    Android is the same thing. I got a android tablet, and was amazed at the sub-par experience. Sure it has lots of half-baked features, but the basics completely missed the mark.

    Apple is trying to distinguish their business models – good for them. Ironically the nerd-crowd who otherwise worries about Apple’s product “control”, often seem happy to turn over their personal data to google, when it seems it should flow the other way.

    • Walt Mackinley

      That is well written, and a beef I’ve had for years about Google. The very nerds who pride themselves on their Google usage utterly miss the way the company behaves – it is, more or a less, in market of either stealing data, selling data, or stepping into new markets poorly constructed products and throwing money at it for years until it either turns a profit or gets enough users to compensate for itself in the amount of data it brings in. They demonstrably aren’t interested in making products better, such as evidenced by the nature of Google Drive as you say, but also fragmentation and insecurities in Android.

      If there’s a pretty, usable version of Android out there (ignoring, for the moment, it’s aforementioned inherent problems, it’s because the manufacturer of the handset has invested effort, not because Google actually cares; they don’t, as long as they get customers to make their business Google’s business.

  4. “Apple isn’t entirely good, and Google isn’t entirely evil.”

    …which is kind of a straw man argument you could make about any pair of companies…or anything (ie “Putin isn’t entirely evil, and Mandela wasn’t entirely good…so it’s kind of a wash.”)

    The point is that Apple is a lot better than Google, _in this regard_…unless, of course, you really _want_ a company to collect all kinds of data on you and turn it over to the government when asked.

  5. pkdecville


    You’re on to something here:

    “Like Apple, it serves ads for users based on profiles it has created based on its own stores of user data (albeit a lot more data than Apple uses).”

    Can you provide a link to a strong comparative post on Google vs Apple data collection? Perhaps you might take a stab at bringing some sunshine into the darkness.

    Appreciate any further info you can provide. Thanks.

  6. Will White

    I think this misses the fundamental point that Tim Cook’s letter was making and that is the comparison of business models. Apple sells products directly to customers and Google sells advertisements. That’s the core difference. Because of these business models, Apple (in theory) always has the customers best interest first, including protecting their privacy. Google (in theory) does not and that is an important difference.

    The question Tim is encouraging customers to ask themselves is “Why are all of these great Google services free?” … Answer … because you are not the customer. You are the product. The same is true with Facebook and Twitter. Whether that is “you” as the individual or “you” as some kind of aggregate or trend.

    What is truly better for customers is an open question and your points about service quality being directly related to data volume and quality are compelling.

  7. A few things worth mentioning. iOS devices and Macs can use search with DuckDuckGo, which doesn’t rely on data mining to function and heavily protects privacy. Apple apps can grab significantly less data than Google apps, regardless of whether they collect anything at all. Apple has discussed iAd in their privacy policies, and collects significantly less data than Google and other ad networks. Lastly, it hasn’t been “rumored” that Apple uses Azure and Amazon. It can be easily proven if you simply do a packet dump from your Mac while using their services. But their practice of maintaining keys and storing the data as unidentifiable data blobs is admirable.

    Maybe you’re not aware of the security and privacy concerns that have come up in the past year. You should spend some time searching it (using DuckDuckGo of course) before you write your next piece of desperate click bait.

  8. BrooksTalley

    Not sure if the author is genuinely not seeing the big picture or if it’s just contrarian clickbait. I’ll give the benefit of the doubt.

    Yes, Cook’s statement is positioning. And it’s an oversimplification. But the gist is true: Apple’s financial incentives are more aligned with their end users’ interests than Google’s are.

    Look at Apple Pay and purchase privacy; Apple does not know if you use Apple Pay at a bakery or a bordello. Google’s approach, which is equally legitimate, is that that data helps them provide better services. Of course, to read this article, you wouldn’t know that Apple Pay is a thing, despite the fact that it was mentioned prominently in every one of the articles that this author characterizes as bored and grasping for content.

    What makes me think that the author is just being clueless in good faith is the comment about Apple’s high device and cloud prices — this is absolutely true. But it’s true, in part, *because* Apple just has the consumer revenue stream. Google’s ability to offer the same service at half the price is precisely because it is subsidized by revenue from third parties, enabled by metadata about what it is you’re storing.

    It’s like complaining that HBO costs more than NBC: it’s true, but it’s also intrinsic to the different business model. Why is that more wrong in the tech industry? Or why is it wrong for someone like Cook to point out that difference?

    (The other part of Apple’s high prices aligns with the author’s fairly standard knock on Apple: they are a premium / high margin company and will just always charge more because they can)

    It’s also a little odd to see a single article by a single journalist as evidence of a trend in consumer thinking. Maybe? But there are plenty of other articles arguing for switching to Apple’s ecosystem. And other articles arguing for switching away from Apple. What makes this one article so definitive, other than that plays into the author’s confirmation bias?

  9. Wow. The author admits that looking at one’s Android location data can be scary and the glosses over it by calling it a philosophical question. Uh, no. It is the entire goddam point. Google’s power and reach into our lives goes way beyond giving up a little privacy for convenience. Anyone who lives in the Google ecosystem is a product for sale to all bidders. I’ll pass thanks so much.

  10. Apple has no way to offer the same awesome tailored user experience as Google so obviously they would be jealous and at the same time condescending. But hey it’s expected, right?

      • o what is Apple user experience? Is it Siri? She doesn’t understand everything you said. Good luck with that . By no means is Apple experience the most divine user experience. Everything has its good and bad. Try not to be con descending. Everyone is different.

        • Apples user experience comes from being the first company to successfully turn the PC into a consumer product as a whole. They control the whole UI experience, from the design of the computer, to the operating system, and how it’s presented to the user.

          What does google have? A web page… ooohhhhh ahhhhh… That’s a small insignificant piece in Apples ecosystem.

    • Or Google controls every step of your search, feeding you only what “they” want you to see. That’s a controlled experience, not awesome. I moved to Bing and found the experience equal to and sometimes better than Google. Yahoo search is to weak to be useful. Google is a bit too controlling and limited for my taste.