Is Apple really Big Brother?

Google suggests at its I/O conference that Apple now represents the very Big Brother notion that it claimed to be against with its "1984" spot. How persuasive is that argument?

Chris Matyszczyk
5 min read

Is there a more painful and stupefying feeling than when a good guy turns out to be a bad guy? My girlfriends tell me they can always see it coming. The thing is, they only tell me that after the event, when the formerly good guy has revealed that he's married, in debt, or even worse, an insurance broker.

This past week, Google went out of its way at its I/O Conference to suggest that a company it once thought of as being just this side of Tom Hanks, Apple, represented a "Draconian future, a future where one man, one company, one device, one carrier would be our only choice." Those were the words of Vic Gundotra, Google's vice president of engineering.

Within minutes of his speech, I received a link to the video I have embedded. It's a mashup of two Apple ads-- the famous "1984" spot and an "iPhone" ad. It presents an eerie image of Google's argument. Apple, the suggestion goes, is now Big Brother.

It's easy to fall for such a notion. The refusal to include Flash on the iPad, the constant controls around apps, which seem to let Playboy slide by, while cartoonists and even some politicians are excluded on the basis of quite difficult ideas of what is appropriate and what isn't.

With just the slightest of delayed reactions, though, laughter seems to wiggle its way to the forefront. Google calling Apple "Big Brother" might seem, to some, a little like (with all due respect to both gentlemen) Hugo Chavez calling George Bush the "devil".

Doesn't Google store more information about more people without their express knowledge than anyone other than, oh, maybe Facebook? Isn't Google being pursued by seemingly half the countries in Europe for showing almost as much respect for their privacy laws as it had for those whose contacts it exposed when it launched Buzz? And then there's the antitrust cloud that appears to hover with a threat of hail.

Isn't that the sort of atmosphere one might associate with, dare one mention, a big chap with glasses on a large screen?

For most people, Google and Apple both have their fundamental uses. The former tickles your left brain, the latter, your right. Which means they have different strategies. Think of it as strategies for keeping a lover.

Apple presents itself as the witty, handsome chap who tells his lover that she will have far more fun with him than with anyone else. Yes, he can be a little boorish. Yes, he's a bit of a rake at times. And, yes, he does have his moods and is very clear about his likes and dislikes, however irrational they might be. But as a long-term catch, he's better to be seen with, better to live with and gets great tables at the best restaurants. He's equally liked by men and women. Brad Pitt, anyone?

Google, on the other hand, might just be Rainn Wilson. The slightly gauche chap who uses the left-side of his brain so much that his neck is developing a slant. He already knows so much about you. But he needs to know everything about you. He's so, so interested in you. He tells you that it's only when he knows everything about you that he can really know how to please you.

But because you've lived a little, you fear the real reason he tells you that is because in his heart there might dwell a robot of uncertain programming, one who believes that logic conquers all. And when he ends up knowing everything about you, that's when you'll feel controlled. He knows he might not be the best looker, so he tries to show off his many interesting new friends, like Sony and Intel. And he does have, as they used to say in sitcoms, excellent prospects.

Again, in this analysis, Google comes off as very slightly more Big Brotherish.

The strange thing inherent in suggesting that Apple is Big Brother is that the company seems to know so little about people, in the literal, data-driven sense. It doesn't even seem to do that much research, because it knows that so much of it is wet tripe.

Yet it seems to know so much about people in the instinctive, human sense. It's accused of "marketing", as if this were some obscene, drug-addled sorcery. But how much of it is anything other than creating value by giving people what they actually enjoy?

The upfront lowdown
For a supposed Big Brother, Apple is strangely upfront about its moods. It doesn't secretly exclude Flash. It does it publicly. It doesn't secretly even try to conquer the world. It declares itself fairly openly and banks on you buying into the concrete things it offers. And, indeed, the things it doesn't.

Unlike Google, Apple actually wants you to part with your own money and feels it should offer something in return. Most Google products (although I'm assuming Nexus One is still alive somewhere) are offered for free.

That doesn't mean Google's products don't have value. They clearly do. But is it ultimately as open a relationship as it appears? Isn't Google the ultimate loss leader company, that gives upfront in order to take around the back? Google's competition in, say, search, is surely far less vigorous than that which Apple has to face in its product areas. And the company seems less able, or sometimes even less willing, to do the things necessary to impress people about its wares. Yes, that evil marketing thing.

Because technology moves so quickly, both Apple and Google want to create large ecosystems because, they feel, if they don't, they might just begin to dissipate with alarming speed. The likelihood is that neither will succeed entirely, because the competition that will now be engendered between the two of them will offer more innovation, more speedy product development and therefore more speedy countermeasures to each other's moves.

(Just imagine if Apple were to come out with some kind of competitive search product. Unlikely, but goodness, if Apple found the wherewithal, it might just present such a product with a gusto that Google has never mustered.)

But perhaps the most hopeful sign in Google's suggestion of Apple's Big Brotherhood is that at least it's a step away from the disingenuous "no harm, no foul" the company seems to churn out every time there's a security breach or a privacy snafu.

What is surely most uplifting about Vic Gundotra's speech is that it was openly competitive and, at times, amusing. Somehow, this felt more human (and, therefore, a little less Big Brotherish) than quite a few things Google has offered in the past. Perhaps the company has, indeed, finally found someone who can present its ethos in a way real humans can appreciate and warm to.

One hopes that neither Google nor Apple, in the end, will allow the other to become a big-enough brother to be truly communist in scope. It may well be that each will begin to take on some of the character of the other in order to fight the other's very strengths. But it's interesting just how long all this Big Brother baiting has been in coming. Here's an ABCNews.com headline from 2008: "Is Google turning into Big Brother?" There have been many more since.

Oh, and that Apple Big Brother mashup I've embedded. That's from 2008 too.