Marketing implications of Apple’s decision to take on the FBI

Monday 22nd, February 2016

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It was the hottest tech story going around last week. Apple CEO, Tim Cook posted a letter to customers on the company’s website outlining the company’s reasons for refusing to heed a court order asking it to produce a software to hack into a terrorist’s iPhone. The extraordinary tone of the communication marked a huge change in Apple’s approach to dealing with such requests.

Cook acknowledged that the company had in the past co-operated with law enforcement agencies in response to requests for data. However, what is at stake here is something much larger. Namely, the role that Apple sees for itself as protector of customer data. In the past too, Apple has taken a swipe at competitors by projecting itself as a company that is conscious of its customers concern for privacy. It has clearly stated that it did not view customer data as an opportunity to place ads and make money.

Weighing the options

The decision to go public with Apple’s response must have surely been a well-considered one. It would have been all too easy for Apple to have come across as insensitive and arrogant, particularly when a matter of national security was involved.

Which is why Apple seems to have gone out of its way to assure everybody that it is fighting on a point of principle. That principle seems to be a very simple one; that accepting such a request would only open the floodgates to such requests from other countries.

This seems like a reasonable point. After all, Apple is a world-wide business and its business runs in a range of jurisdictions that range from institutionalised democracies to less liberal ones where the rule of law may not be as robust.

The marketing implications:

Consider for a moment the marketing implications from Apple’s standpoint. This is a company that has for decades pursued relentless excellence in everything that it does. From product design to the user experience, from packaging to marketing communications, from the hardware to customer service everything about an Apple product is guaranteed to deliver a superior experience.

Which is why the company seems to be playing a high-stakes game. With concerns about privacy increasing by the day, Apple has already put in place sophisticated protocols that ensure that nobody can break into its devices.

When you’re buying a top-of-the-line piece of hardware, it serves as the ultimate reassurance to know that your data is yours alone and nobody has any way to access it. In that sense, the privacy safeguards are as much as a product feature as the hardware, the design or anything else that goes into the product.

For Apple customers, nothing less than the best will do. It is in keeping with the expectations that customers have of Apple. Customers expect Apple to do the right thing.

Painful dilemma

It is interesting to speculate on what course of action Apple could have chosen in the present situation. It could have quietly given in to the court order and built a backdoor entry to the phone. And never breathed a word of it to the world at large.

Or, it could have taken the more difficult route – as it seems to have done – and taken its customers into confidence. Clearly, Apple has chosen to take the ethical but more difficult route conscious that the outcome may not be favourable to it. Assuming that Apple challenges the decision legally, it could land the company in years of litigation and force it to confront the Government.

Already, the rumbles of discontent have begun. The Republican candidate, Donald Trump fired the first salvo asking ‘Who do they think they are?’. So, not everybody would be appreciative of Apple’s stance.

For the average customer whose personal data typically consists of contacts, photos, videos, personal financial information and the like stored on the phone the debate may not amount to much. It is quite likely that Apple may even come up against a massive wall of indifference if it decides to ask its customers to side with it in its confrontation.

A wake-up call

What Apple is clearly doing is to paint a vision of the future and to educate its customers to weigh the implications. For the average Joe, Apple vs. US Government may not matter but the implications on citizen freedom and privacy are enormous.

One has to wonder though whether Apple is staking far too much on a point of principle. Just how far will it be willing to go if pushed into a corner by the US Government and the courts? From a government perspective, national security obviously out-weighs individual privacy concerns. So far, the Government has gone to extra-ordinary extents to assure all audiences that it is happy to let Apple develop the back-door and extract the information for the Government.

Can the US Government be trusted with its assurance? Or, will it merely open up the spectre of Big Brother – ironically, a fear that Apple raised in a different context in its landmark commercial some thirty odd years ago?

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