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What Tim Cook and Apple don’t get about Google’s success: Consumers don’t value their privacy

Updated 8 years ago
Apple Tim Cook Google Privacy

Tim Cook earlier this week said that consumers will eventually grow weary of providing their personal information to companies like Google in exchange for free services.

“You might like these so-called free services, but we don’t think they’re worth having your email, your search history and now even your family photos data-mined and sold off for god knows what advertising purpose,” Cook said. “And we think some day, customers will see this for what it is.”

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Though Cook didn’t mention any company by name, it’s clear that he was directly referencing Google.

I contend that Cook’s view in this regard is shortsighted and demonstrates that a) Apple underestimates the allure and strength of the Google ecosystem and b) that Apple simply can’t grasp the fact that the privacy tradeoff, for most consumers, is well worth it.

When it comes to user privacy, it’s all about trade-offs. More often than not, consumers are all too glad to give up small slivers of their privacy in exchange for services that they value. After all, credit card companies know where and when you shop, while phone companies know who you call, at what times, and for how long.

Similarly, users who value Google’s free services are seemingly more than willing to give up portions of their privacy in exchange for software that works and works well.

To wit, the recently unveiled Google Photos service offers unlimited storage for both photos and videos, all for the low low price of $0 a month. That’s amazing, and even if we assume that Google might mine those photos for, say, vacation spots you may have recently visited, most people simply won’t care.

In a recent review of Google Photos, Walt Mossberg of Re/Code writes: “I consider it the best photo backup-and-sync cloud service I’ve tested — better than the leading competitors from Apple, Amazon, Dropbox and Microsoft.”

Then there’s Gmail, Google’s easy to use and very functional email service. With features such as Gchat and a spam detection algorithm that’s the best in the business, most people simply don’t care that there’s an underlying algorithm scanning your email for advertising keywords. Again, the trade-off is worth it.

And the proof is in the numbers — Google last announced that the number of Gmail users is now 900 million strong.

Facebook is yet another example where the privacy trade-off is worth it to billions of users. The value and enjoyment Facebook provides trumps any and all concerns most people might have about, say, seeing an ad for a Lebron James jersey because Facebook knows that they are from Ohio and have Basketball listed as one of their interests.

Instead of just blasting companies like Google for mining consumer information, Apple might be better served by asking themselves– what is it about these services that compel users to gladly provide personal information and live with targeted ads?

Apple is a champion of privacy, and that’s great. But Apple and Tim Cook are sorely mistaken if they think that their allegiance to privacy is some sort of selling point for the masses. Apple and Tim Cook are in for a rude awakening if they casually categorize something like Google Photos as a non-threat on account of privacy considerations.

As Benedict Evans tweeted last night:

In response, Ryan Block also makes a good point:

One can only hope that Tim Cook was simply hamming it up for the crowd at EPIC — it was a privacy conference after all — and that he truly understands that Google’s stable of free services provide alluring value propositions for millions of users across the globe.

Yoni Heisler Contributor

Yoni Heisler has been writing about Apple and the tech industry at large for over 15 years. A life long Mac user and Apple expert, his writing has appeared in Edible Apple, Network World, MacLife, Macworld UK, and TUAW. When not analyzing the latest happenings with Apple, Yoni enjoys catching Improv shows in Chicago, playing soccer, and cultivating new TV show addictions.