This article was co-authored by Justin Kaufman and Jon Green.
At this year’s Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC), Apple introduced the world to a variety of novel technologies and advancements scheduled for release in the coming months. Of course, due to COVID-19, this year was a stripped-down version of years past. There were no crowds, no fanfare, and no journalists frantically sharing hot takes from behind glowing screens. This focused, straight-talking aesthetic was mirrored in the announcements as well, with Apple presenting a comprehensive and focused vision of the future we’ll soon inhabit. Apple depicted a technology ecosystem that flexibly and respectfully serves its consumers and announced new tools to nudge other companies join them.
Apple strives to launch products that ‘just work’, seldom introducing customers to incomplete or work-in-progress features. But Apple relies on the same tools as App Developers to build these products. By studying Apple’s workshop of software frameworks, designers and developers can divine the future and anticipate what the world will look like years in advance. Looking closely, we can anticipate a future that looks familiar but works in startling new ways.
The original iPhone offered a crisp window to the web in the palm of your hand. Subsequent releases offered a completely immersive experiences that took over the screen with rich graphics and sound. In the years since, Apple's adopted a clear strategy to push customers’ eyes up, away from their screens, and onto the world around them. iPhone suggests taking breaks from Facebook and games or shames you (me at least) with your weekly screen time. CarPlay limits users to very basic, but automotive friendly functionality. Apple Watch users spend less time on iPhone than their peers. What could possibly motivate a company to discourage customers from using its flagship product?
Rather than continue to draw people inward, Apple decided that its technology should play a quiet role in making the broader world smarter, more inviting, and easier to navigate. Apple has a broader vision. They had an addictive product in the iPhone, but even Apple knows that the only way to build on its success is to help customers imagine a world without it.
By building a suite of products aimed at helping people focus on and navigate the real world, Apple has anticipated the biggest change in computing since the smartphone. This new computing paradigm goes by many names: “ubiquitous,” “ambient,” and “intelligent” come to mind. But they all reduce to a simple truth: computing exists to serve human ends.
The very same sensors and algorithms our devices use to scan the world can capture our most personal moments. For us to forge a trusting partnership with our technology, we must feel secure in our privacy. Apple took notice and is positioning itself and its adherents for a future of computing that’s more personal than ever while putting privacy and dignity first. A focus on paid services and privacy positions Apple at odds with advertising-driven businesses that depend on personal data for ad targeting.
Eight years ago, Apple curtailed advertisers’ ability to “fingerprint” users and track them across apps and websites. Apple introduced a kinder, gentler alternative in the form of an Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA) savvy users could reset at will. Advertisers groaned, but the market for private data continued largely unabated. Then, in 2016, Apple added a new option to “Limit Ad Tracking,” which, while ominous to advertisers, was ignored by the vast majority of users. Until now. This month, Apple announced that users of iOS 14 will be reminded of their right to opt out of tracking any time an app requests access to their ID. Advertisers could previously go unnoticed, monitoring user habits for years at a stretch. Now the gig is up. Advertisers will have to admit to tracking and grovel for permission. And just like that, Apple upended the $80-billion-dollar ad industry. Why would Apple undermine advertising on their platform? The same reason they look beyond the iPhone. Apple’s crown jewel is its reputation for building trustworthy products that respect users. This move, like the phone-addict support tools before it, builds trust.
Advertising is hardly the only consumer privacy front Apple’s playing on. Apple Pay helped displace payment tools that monetized user behavior. “Sign in with Apple” muscled out social networks that tracked users after logging in.
Another new announcement, App Clips, underscores Apple’s commitment to directly addressing customers on their own terms. App Clips allow users to launch mini apps without submitting to the unwanted tracking or notifications of their full-scale counterparts. This time, Apple replaced their own product, apps, with a safer, more private alternative.
Over the past five years, Apple quietly assembled a portfolio of technologies that enable a world of ambient digital experiences that respect our time and attention. iPhone serves as an executive assistant, gathering contributions from a variety of apps and communicating only what’s relevant to the user. Thanks to App Clips and a host of other privacy-protecting services, users no longer need to remember they have an app for a particular task, which app it is, where it lives on their home screen, or what it’s doing with their private data.
The message couldn’t be clearer. Either build experiences people value enough to purchase or deliver ads so good that people request them. In some ways, Apple’s proposed future seems almost quaint, recalling a time when ads, printed in topical magazines, spoke directly about the products they hawked. But Apple doesn’t do this out of nostalgia. This willing regression to an older era of advertising comes from knowing the stakes. The only way for Apple to burrow any deeper into our lives is to put trust and privacy above technology and profit. Apple’s latest moves encourage everyone transacting business on their platform to do the same.
Exposing advertising’s invasive tracking will cause it to lose its potency and cost-effectiveness. As advertising’s role in acquiring and retaining customers fades, product moves to the forefront. The spend dedicated to advertising could be better applied to building context-sensitive, value-added product experiences that build trust with your brand. Rather than bombard users while they wait for Candy Crush to load, meet them where they’re at with one of the myriad micro-experiences now available. Deliver customers an on-demand App Clip, helpful widget, or intelligent Siri experience. While Apple keeps user data private and secure on the device, your business can leverage this context to build rich, timely experiences that Apple will surface to customers. Build your brand by offering customers personalized services and experiences that they value.
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