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Tim Cook’s thoughts on Facebook

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In April of 2010, Steve Jobs wrote an open-letter titled “Thoughts on Flash1, where he outlined with typical Jobsian gusto and directness why Apple would not be supporting Adobe’s Flash player on iOS. At the time it caused a small controversy, in part because it was a skirmish between tech companies, and in part because many media companies were dependent on Flash for video and other interactive content, while also starting to figure out what kinds of experiences to build for the then-brand-new iPad.

In hindsight, Jobs’s letter marked a major inflection point for the company. “Thoughts on Flash,” intentionally or not, laid out what you might call the Jobs Doctrine; as Apple has proven over and again, they’re always going to act first in their own self-interest, second to do what’s best for their customers, and on behalf of the their developers and other partners where it makes strategic sense.

This may sound obvious today, but it’s worth reflecting on how different tech was a decade ago, not to mention Apple’s place in it. In April 2010, the top of the line iPhone —indeed the only iPhone they sold — was the 10-month-old 3GS (it would be another year before the iPhone 4, a singularly perfect product, was released) and the iPad had just been unveiled alongside news partners promising a new vision for the media business.

Putting Adobe on notice represented a true turn of fortune for both companies. I have my doubts if there was ever much truth to them, but there were perennial rumors throughout the 90’s and early 2000’s that Adobe might stop building Mac versions of their software and focus solely on Windows. Again, it’s difficult to recall there was a ever time when this would have been considered a threat to what is now the richest company in the world, but it wasn’t so long ago that such a move could have proven existential for Apple2. The Jobs Doctrine was a direct result of Apple’s beleaguered period and his letter signaled the company that represented his life’s work would never be put it into a position of reliance like that again.

This past Thursday, while the rest of the world was obsessing over a Reddit brigade upending the stock market, Tim Cook spoke at the Computers, Privacy, and Data Protection conference, where he once again took aim at what he called the “data-industrial complex”.

In demeanor and temperament, Cook could not be more different than Jobs, but his directness and clarity are very akin to those of his mentor and friend. Beyond his echo of Eisenhower, Cook held nothing back, labeling some tech companies “peddlers of division” and “trackers and hucksters looking to make a quick buck”. He didn’t need to mention names, anyone who’s followed the industry at all knows Cook is talking about Google and, in particular, Facebook.

Cook made a strong moral case against the internet’s current dominant business model, saying “if we accept as normal and unavoidable that everything in our lives can be aggregated and sold, then we lose so much more than data. We lose the freedom to be human.” It’s clearly something that animates Cook personally, far beyond a spat between businesses.

Of course, this isn’t a mere moral crusade for the CEO of the world’s most valuable company. Cook is providing much-needed global authority after a years-long vacuum of anything resembling leadership, but he’s also staking out a position for technology that humanizes and features that enhance people’s understanding of their tools. Nor is this an extension of the Jobs Doctrine — Apple’s business is doing just fine with our without Facebook. Cook has articulated a vision of a world where people have control over how their data is collected and used.

Facebook’s defenders, or at least those critical of Cook’s take, point out that Apple’s business gives them the luxury of opting out of the thornier side of online advertising, that Facebook provides a service used by billions of people every day, they’ve allowed new types of businesses, and they have a right to make money. Mark Zuckerberg made that exact point, albeit hamfistedly and without convincing any of his critics, by claiming his giant tech company is actually standing up for the little guy.

Cook’s response is, again, simple and straightforward: “If a business is built on misleading users, on data exploitation, on choices that are no choices at all, then it does not deserve our praise. It deserves reform.” And saying Apple is being disingenuous because they don’t have an ad business (well, certainly not a very effective one) is missing the point — Cook clearly doesn’t believe that’s a business worthy of his company and he’s taking responsibility for not going down that path and for giving his users tools to avoid being swept up as well.

It remains to be seen just how much this particular move by Apple is actually going to hurt Facebook’s business, which just reported stellar earnings, going forward. Most people, when you ask them, will say they care about their privacy or online data, but clearly not enough to actually stop using Facebook’s services. Apple may be responsible for some of the headwinds Zuckerberg referred to, but, as I’ve noted before, Facebook has a Trumpian ability to avoid accountability. I still believe Cook and Apple are doing the right thing and hope it’s effective but don’t see much impact on Facebook in the long run.

Indulge me in one final thought experiment: imagine it’s possible to grant Cook and Zuckerberg even more power than they, billionaire CEOs of two of the most recognizable corporations on earth, already have. Imagine, with a snap of their fingers, they could solve the biggest problem facing their respective companies. What might that look like?

For Cook and Apple, I imagine it would be something like shifting their manufacturing out of China, if not entirely, then certainly distributing to anywhere from South Korea, Taiwan, or India, to Mexico or even back to the United States. Cook’s moral standing would be stronger and he might also feel compelled to speak out against the Uyghur persecution or China’s anti-democratic crackdown in Hong Kong or have stood stronger against our own home-grown proto-authoritarian instead of gifting him a Mac Pro.

Ultimately, the core of Apple’s business — building computers, mobile devices, and supporting services — would remain unchanged.

And how might Zuckerberg alter the universe to favor Facebook? Would he simply ether, Thanos-like, those who use his creation to plan insurrections or facilitate genocide? Would he seek to change the hearts and minds of conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers who disseminate lies on a global scale? Would Zuckerberg recognize his leviathan is and has always been a machine for propogating right-wing media and finally tune the algorithms to cut down the rage and noise?

These questions are much harder to reckon with because, unlike Apple’s herculean task of rebuilding a supply chain, Facebook’s challenges seem an order of magnitude harder. And even if it were possible, what remains is still … Facebook. They would continue to be a business that relies on surveilling their users and feeding them content via black-box algorithms, paid for by equally opaque ads. Facebook’s problem is endemic to what it is, it can’t be excised any more than we could separate a soul from a body.

  1. As someone who loves the web, it makes me sad the URL for Jobs’s original post is now a 404. Indeed, the former “Hot News” section redirects to the more staid “Newsroom” and a search for “Thoughts on Flash” turns up nothing.

    Apple, like Jobs, is notoriously unsentimental about its own history, rarely recognizing let alone celebrating milestones like the anniversary of the some of their most iconic products. I get a certain amount of detachment but cool URIs don’t change, man! ↩︎

  2. To be honest I’m not sure even if a hypothetical Adobe had declared in, say, 2000 they wouldn’t do the work to support OS X that it would have materially impacted Apple all that much; the iMac and iPod were almost certainly more crucial to establishing the runway that made modern Apple possible. It would have been a devastating blow to Apple’s mindshare, though.

    If you were the kind of creative professional in the ‘90s and aughts who argued the minutiae of Mac nerdery on message boards and mailing lists (ahem), you could almost set your watch by how regularly someone declared Apple on death’s door, that it was only a matter of time before Adobe (or Microsoft or Aldus or Netscape) gave up supporting the Mac and it’s 2% market share. Today, of course, no one is taking to Twitter to claim Apple is a few quarters away from bankruptcy or facing some existential threat from literally any other company. The complaints all run in the opposite direction, that Apple and other Big Tech companies are too rich and powerful. ↩︎