Did you see the big game earlier this month featuring a veteran coach against a far younger newcomer? Each led a team filled with talent that had reached the pinnacle of their business, though by very different approaches. And, as you may have noticed, the veteran coach spanked the newcomer’s team in a not-very-thrilling contest.
I’m not talking about that lamentable Super Bowl, where the winning quarterback was nearly a decade older than the losing team’s head coach. No, I’m talking about the other big game, between Team Apple and Team Facebook, over a small area where they overlap. It’s all part of the long-running contest over whether our private lives should be stripmined for profit but too little payback.
Tim Cook Flexes on Mark Zuckerberg
Very roughly speaking, you can think of CEO Tim Cook and Team Apple as something like the NFL’s New England Patriots, an established winner on top so long that it seems ludicrous when they claim to be underdogs. Their reign may be coming to an end as time, mobile-phone consumption patterns and circumstances change, but it hasn’t happened yet.
And, though it pains me on several levels, think of CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Team Facebook as more like the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams, a fast-rising upstart headed by a much younger leader who keeps finding ways to change the game, and to win. Except last week.
The putative battle was yet another example of Facebook’s sometimes inattentive, sometime indefensible approach to the game of making money from the lives and output of billions of users and content creators.
Earlier this month, Facebook got thumped by Apple for yet another transgression in a seemingly endless procession of sucky Team Zuck decisions.
I won’t bore you with a game replay, but it involved a crummy little Facebook app that gathered still more data from teens and 20-somethings that somehow hadn’t already been extracted. Given that teens and 20-somethings are increasingly ignoring Facebook, perhaps it’s no surprise the company began paying some of them $20 a month so it could snoop more thoroughly.
But it looked bad. More importantly, the app skirted, and possibly stomped on, Apple policies regarding a class of supposed internal-use-only apps for enterprises. Blah, blah, blah. After Apple temporarily shut down all of Facebook’s internal iOS apps, a point was made. Facebook zapped the offending program and the spigot for everything else was turned back on.
The resulting schadenfreude over Apple’s little gut punch was something to behold. Many observers just seemed delighted that somebody somewhere had meted out some kind of consequence to Facebook (Google was also briefly shut down for a similar app) for at least one of its many recent misdeeds.
It wasn’t much of a smack though. As Apple Insider put it: “Facebook and Google are too big to fail. It took almost no time for Apple to reinstate the enterprise certificates for both companies. Would that have happened — ever — for a smaller company?”
It’s worth noting that Facebook turned 15 days after the fight. Apple is almost 43, triple Facebook and about the same age as Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady.
Wall Street: Profits > Privacy
For most of Facebook’s existence, Apple has been an ascendant power fueled by humongous iPhone sales in the mobile boom. Facebook’s growth has been fueled by a very different approach, one that distills data into dollars, abetted by acquisitions such as Instagram, What’s App and Oculus Rift.
So, the younger company finally had some minor consequence for one of its many bad decisions. People celebrated. And then Facebook reported its quarterly earnings, which included record profits. Hmm, not much of an object lesson here for Zuck and Team.
And that’s exactly the problem, I’ll just guess, for the Old Ball Coach Tim Cook. Facebook is screwing it up for everyone else, even the giants such as Apple that have spent years not making money off people’s data.
For months now, Cook has publicly and repeatedly needled Zuckerberg and Facebook about privacy issues.
Cook understands that Facebook’s endless litany of shame is going to drive the United States, India and, especially, parts of the European Union to reframe antitrust, amp up privacy rules and otherwise rein in the techno-libertarian, anti-regulatory bent that undergirded the tech explosion of the past 20 years. Facebook, Google and others took advantage of that hands-off regulatory approach just a little too much and now people are getting a bit peeved.
Even as Zuck’s Schmucks keep feeding new foulups into the fires of public opinion, we’re seeing growing distrust of the tech sector and increasing political pressure to pull back its power. There’s a reason all the big tech companies have significantly increased their spending on Washington lobbying the last two years. They know they’re going to need the help.
Regulation is Coming
Indeed, after the latest mess surfaced, U.S. Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) tweeted, “We cannot trust Big Tech to keep children’s best interests in mind.” That matters because Markey is also one of three senators who sent letters asking Facebook, Apple, and Google whether they would support updated federal legislation protecting the privacy of teens and children. Expect more efforts like this over the next couple of years.
By the way, last week also saw another big anniversary in tech history. During the Super Bowl broadcast 35 years ago, Apple ran its iconic “1984” ad, which took on the Duopoly of that day, Microsoft and IBM, in announcing the launch of the Macintosh computer.
Last week, Apple threw a different hammer at a different duopoly, and it wasn’t anywhere near so heavy. But Cook knows that a much bigger hammer may be coming down soon, if Zuckerberg doesn’t finally get his act together.