How Apple risks losing its position of trust

Commentary: Will Apple's admission that it slows down older iPhones hurt its brand reputation? Or have people largely become cynical about tech companies?

Chris Matyszczyk
4 min read

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

Apple's New iPhone X Goes On Sale In Stores


Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Claiming to be the good guy has its issues.

Once you've set yourself up to be holier than all the world's thou's, you constantly have to live up to it.

So when it emerged that Apple has been secretly slowing down older iPhones to preserve their batteries, it's natural that some customers might have paused and wondered.

Apple CEO Tim Cook, after all, has been keen to present Apple as the brand you can trust above all its competitors.

He's sniffed at Google and Facebook as being companies that ruthlessly gobble people's information, while Apple is bathed in morality and does everything possible to preserve your privacy.

Yet here is Apple slyly doing things to people's phones -- even if it's for the phone's own good -- and simply not telling them about it.

What else might it have done or be able to do?

Worse, Apple had consistently denied slowing older phones down. Why did Cupertino choose not to admit the truth until it was caught? I suspect someone at Apple didn't like the PR look.

You're slowing down our phones? How could you?

Some Apple loyalists were distraught. iOS developer Marco Arment tweeted: "The reputation damage from secretly slowing down old iPhones, regardless of the reason, will likely linger for a decade."

Oh, I don't know about that.

Apple's core fanpersons have been remarkably forgiving over the years. Remember when they were told the iPhone 4's antenna issue was all about them holding it wrong?

Apple has managed to build up reputational capital -- despite the occasional gross snafu -- precisely because it's invested so much in gaining that capital in the first place, while its competitors sought merely to focus on products and their features.

It's only in recent years that the likes of Samsung and Microsoft have realized that a great part of brand reputation and loyalty lies in actively developing an emotional relationship with your customers, both through the kinds of products you make and how you communicate.

Apple began by making products that people could instinctively use. and it communicated to customers with elegance and simplicity.

Customers trusted Apple to make their lives easier and to create products that were worth showing off.

Times, though, have become more complicated.

The very demands of the modern digital world make it far more difficult for any tech brand to be trusted.

After all, as tech crawls all over us and we bury our heads in it, the relationship between tech company and customer necessarily becomes uncomfortably open and close.

It's all very well for Cook to claim privacy is a moral issue. Yet he surely knows that customers themselves have tossed their privacy to the winds, simply to get silly things for free. 

Sure, I'll tell you everything about me and let you target personal ads at me, as long as I can use your wonderful social medium to show off to my friends.

It's not that we don't care about our privacy exactly. It's that we look around, see that everything's happening in the public gaze and decide that this is the new normal.

We've made our thoughts, our pictures and our relationships much easier to access. 

In turn, tech companies feel entirely free to do whatever it takes to keep us doing what we're doing, so that they can keep making money.  

This presents enormous difficulties for Apple's perch atop the high ground.

When iPhone X came out with its Face ID feature, Apple insisted that your facial features would stay on your phone and not be shared.

But then it emerged that app developers have been given access to facial data, on condition that they promise not to sell the data to third parties and get permission from the user first. 

The demands of creating new tech mean that it has to be this way.

The permission thing will surely be easy. "I agree" is now the most automatic click in the world.

So as Apple tries to shake off this uncomfortable happening, I fancy that its customers will shrug and decide that this is the way of the world.

The problem for Apple is that, should more of this sort of thing occur (and it's surely likely), it risks not being able to use trust as a differentiator at all. Apple didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

I fear people have already become quite cynical about the trust thing when it comes to tech companies.

Yes, they'll join in the occasional uproar about, say, devices listening in on your every conversation, and then decide that Amazon Echo is so incredibly useful.

They'll carry on buying Apple products not because they trust the company's stance on privacy and honesty.

They'll buy them because they look cool and the customer is stuck in the ecosystem anyway.

Apple will no longer be the good guy, just the good-looking guy.

For many people, sadly, that's enough.