Apple Should Take The Lead in ‘Digital Drivers Ed’

Apple has been aggressive, and quite public, in recent months in vilifying some of its Silicon Valley coopetitors for how they’ve handled privacy and customer data. This stuff is of course catnip for the trades, who have gleefully coined the term ‘tech civil war’. Apple is certainly right to point out certain egregious practices, and reinforce its own, supposedly more protective, approach. No doubt Apple is also seeing this as an opportunity for some political and competitive gain. I find this disingenuous in part because some of the companies Apple is criticizing are also an important source of how its bread is buttered.

I’m also surprised that Apple seems to be fighting this largely in the media, at public events, and in various internecine missives and salvos. In the midst of all this, Apple hasn’t been very proactive at communicating its approach to privacy and the handling of consumer data with its own customers. As a customer of multiple Apple devices and services, I have not received one email or other item of proactive correspondence related to Apple’s approach on privacy, what safeguards I might take, or what settings on my device or apps I might adjust. There is very little about this issue prominently displayed on Apple’s website. There aren’t any ‘privacy’ tutorials at its stores.

That said, if you dig a little, there is a lot of information on Apple’s approach and what a consumer can do. But it’s buried pretty deep on the company’s website (way at the bottom, under Apple Values—Privacy). There is a lot of information here, and it’s quite nicely explained. Why not place it more front and center rather than on a part of the site where 99% of its customers won’t go?

Overall, this is a missed opportunity for Apple. It’s an opportunity for the company to educate its customers, in a more user-friendly way than Facebook or Google could probably do. Given Apple’s recent travails, and the increasing importance of the services side of its business, this is an opportunity for Apple to reinforce its customer relationships and build loyalty. And this will take even greater importance as Apple increases its focus on the health sector, and the opportunities/risks associated with that.

Apple can take the high road here, and say: “Look, being aware of privacy, how your data can be used, and knowing how to take the right measures, adjust settings, and so on is the digital equivalent of taking a Drivers Ed course before getting behind the wheel”.  Here are the steps I would take if I was Tim Cook:

  • Develop a compelling video tutorial/class, with the objective of getting every customer more educated on these issues and what steps they can take. Put it front and center on the Website. Develop a version for phones and tablets that comes pre-loaded on all new devices and in the next major software update. Incent customers to take the tutorial and complete it ($10 credit?).
  • Develop a pro-active security check-up. I see this as sort of like the way one does a virus scan on their PC. Perhaps this is a new app that Apple develops, which the customer can run and receive information and alerts – i.e. “this location data is being shared with Starbucks…are you OK with that?” The check-up would not only look for vulnerabilities, but also identify any app that is using the customer’s data in violation of certain pre-sent limits.
  • Add Privacy/Data Security tutorials at stores. This is a category that should be added to the list of Apple’s ever-expanding catalog of sessions available at its stores.

This ‘Digital Drivers Ed’, as I’m calling it, should not be limited to strictly to Apple’s own apps and services. Recognizing that the iPhone is the remote control for the digital life for billions of consumers worldwide – including some 50% of U.S. smartphone owners – Apple should also provide some guidance on how settings on its devices affect leading apps. Focus on the popular ones, such as Google Maps, the Facebook universe, key messaging apps, ride sharing, shopping, and media/content apps, and apps/games targeted at minors. Do it in a way that doesn’t criticize these companies or take them down. Rather, ensure that customers are aware of the following:

  • What are the default settings?
  • What information is, or can be shared? What can be adjusted, and how is that done?
  • What are the tradeoffs?
  • If you’re a parent, what are age-appropriate options and settings for minors? And what can you control?

Maybe this can be done in cooperation with some of the leading firms, rather than this ‘tech civil war’ that squanders a lot of calories and goodwill but does little to help or educate consumers. Being proactive here will also forestall regulators getting involved. Few of us believe they would  do a better job addressing this than Silicon Valley’s best and brightest.

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Mark Lowenstein

Mark Lowenstein is Managing Director of Mobile Ecosystem, an advisory services firm focused on mobile and digital media. He founded and led the Yankee Group's global wireless practices and was also VP, Market Strategy at Verizon Wireless. You can follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein and sign up for his free Lens on Wireless newsletter here.

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