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What's really at stake in EU battle: Apple's brand image

Technically Incorrect: It's not so much about the money. It's about Apple being viewed as the bad guy.

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.


He's got an image to keep up and this doesn't help.

The Washingont Post/Screenshot by CNET

This was traditionally always Microsoft's role.

It was the dreary, money-grabbing company that became the symbol of American tech excess and battled with the European Union for years before finally giving in.

This isn't Apple's place. Apple is the tasteful, creative, attractive one.

There's nothing mean about Apple.

That's why Cupertino might have looked at the $14.5 billion fine imposed upon it by the EU and winced a little. But the real issue isn't with money -- that can always be negotiated.

What's at stake here is Apple's brand image.

Once Apple was the rebel that did a few roguish things, but that's what sexy types are supposed to do.

Then Tim Cook came along and whispered in a new era that embraced a social responsibility that lurched toward social activism.

Apple was kinder, gentler, more mature and generally one of the world's finer citizens.

The former rebel had grown up a little and began to embrace popular causes -- be it LGBT rights or environmental policy.

The former rebel still spoke of exciting products, but he also began to speak of privacy as an issue of morality.

Cook's Apple is one that overtly attempts to better society, not merely delights people with a bigger iPad.

Suddenly his company risks being seen as the apogee of global corporate greed. And this in an era when the gap between the haves and the never-have-hads is becoming an impossible chasm.

Cook's response to the EU ruling was robust. It carried with it, however, a tetchy threat.

"Beyond the obvious targeting of Apple," he said, "the most profound and harmful effect of this ruling will be on investment and job creation in Europe."

Somehow, this doesn't quite have the tone of a new toned-down Apple.

At heart, Cook is perhaps banking on Europe's own disarray to maintain Apple's image as the (slightly more) wholesome entity in all this.

The UK has decided it's had enough of the EU, the Greeks only wish they'd never joined and the whole European project looks like something a management consultancy thought up -- shortly before it took its fee and watched the whole mess unravel.

Still, the one thing you know with Europe is that things tend not to get settled or solved quickly. Apple might get buried in this legal quagmire for some years.

It must secretly hope that more tech companies get dragged in with it. For company and for a certain obfuscation of who is the accused.

Otherwise, the EU will work hard to paint Apple as the very ugliest -- and the most profitable -- example of insatiable corporate gobbling.

Perhaps consumers don't really care about these transnational affairs. Perhaps the EU is, for them, just another bureaucratic institution trying to claim a purpose.

But as Cupertino is being accused of a sudden lack of imagination, as luminaries such as Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff seeming to suggest that Apple is far behind Samsung, Apple would prefer not to be seen as big, bad and wolfing down profits wherever it can.

After all, it's got an image to keep up. It's got fancy new stores to roll out. Oh, and it's got to re-excite people about its products next week.

How odd that that the EU would choose this week to bring down the hatchet.