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

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.