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View from Washington: Apple plays the long game

Last week's launch of new services looked thin on detail but had a message: 'Trust us. We're not like the others.'

There is an interesting piece of comparative research to be done (and if you’re aware that it it has been done, please point me to it). People in a broad sample are first asked how much they trust leading technology companies over privacy generally. Then they are asked how much they trust leading technology companies over privacy specifically.

The potential value of doing this occurred to me as I spent time trying to think through Apple’s initially underwhelming ‘Showtime’ launch. Why did a company renowned for only going public when it has virtually everything in place blow so much PR capital on such an anaemic event?

There are two obvious answers. Given an increasingly crowded market for streaming video and the impending launch of Disney’s offer, Apple had to mark out a space for its Apple TV+ service now or risk being swamped. Given the maturity of the western hardware market and clear signs that Asia – especially China – is also getting saturated, Apple must repeatedly demonstrate how it will shift revenue growth from products to services.

I’m sure both were factors at Showtime, although then you wonder why so much brouhaha was thought necessary when Apple was only actually launching one of four headline services, and had nothing on pricing or specific launch dates for the other three.

However, if Apple was to some degree bounced into going public, I would cite a third factor. It goes back to those two initial questions.

Ask them of people in our business and my gut instinct is that even we would score ourselves pretty lowly in general terms but that Apple individually would be seen in a more positive light. Yet does the public think like that?

Some – the Cupertino Barmy Army – perhaps. But most consumers haven’t really followed Apple’s history in terms of the comparative security of its devices, its refusal to bow to pressure from governments that would hack them, the protection of user data within its app T&Cs, and CEO Tim Cook’s own recent comments, particularly with regard to Facebook. That’s all ‘ITK’ stuff.

So, if you look at ‘Showcase’ as also being largely about Apple looking to establish trust and seeking to do so as part of a tarnished industry, it becomes more interesting.

Two of the four new services – the Apple credit card and News+ - target segments where the American public has shown major trust concerns. Western adoption of smartphone wallets like Apple Pay lags far behind that in Asia on services like Tencent’s China’s WeChat because consumers worry about security. Trust in news delivered online has been undermined by the shenanigans of various ‘bad actors’ but, most of all, by how Facebook and YouTube algorithms enabled their deceit.

For both these latest additions, Cook and his colleagues made a big deal about security, privacy and trustworthiness. For example, they explained that products would not track users except where absolutely necessary and asserted that they would be safe enough for users to share their families.

Compared to other Apple launches, this felt like an adaptation to the demands of the real world rather than the deployment of any reality distortion field.

Meanwhile, the personalities wheeled out to support TV+ included Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, still respectively the King and Queen of American film and TV, alongside other popular figures like Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carell. These are individuals the American public trusts.

Where other streaming services often promote ‘edgier’ content, Apple sought to project more of a ‘mom and pop’ image with lashings of safety and quality (although, of course, you will be able to watch most of those rival streamers too via a revamped Apple TV app, as well as shoot ‘em up on the Apple Arcade).

If it felt a bit comfort-zony and woolly rather than insanely great, perhaps there was a method in that. Perhaps the current circumstances demand it and Cook is playing a clever, long game - inching along so that his company regains much of the trust rivals have squandered.

There is the issue around how such manoeuvres tie consumers ever more tightly into the Apple ecosystem. That one has been with us for a while. And you’ve long been able to say with justification that the company’s success has largely come down to giving people what they really want, and finding that they are willing to pay a premium for that.

There are some things Apple gets that other companies simply do not. I’d say last week suggests that applies as much now as it ever has.

We do still need to know the prices – and to see that the implementations live up to Cook’s promises when they arrive. But Showcase may ultimately prove to have been a cannier move than the non-event many are claiming.

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