Looking back over the enthusiasms, arguments and panics around tech in the past few years, I sometimes think that Apple is the $2tn elephant in the corner, mostly silent and serenely indifferent to the news cycle. It doesn’t worry about the “metaverse”, content moderation or hacked elections, and newspaper companies haven’t worked out how to shake it down. It just ships.
Every year, with metronomic precision, it delivers another new set of hardware and software, and another set of technology building blocks that fit into a decade-long strategic plan. Never mind Apple in the 1990s — Microsoft in the 1990s could never manage this. Every year a whole new phone arrives, exactly on schedule, keeping or leading the pace for the entire industry, and then ships in the hundreds of millions of units, machined out of aluminium and stainless steel, at a 40 per cent gross margin. This is very hard. Apple pioneered PCs, and then lost the market and barely survived. But now it’s bigger than PCs — there are more iPhones and iPads in use today than all PCs combined, and they run chips created by Apple that are ahead of anything from Intel or Qualcomm. In Microsoft’s era everything in tech was a PC accessory, but now PCs are smartphone accessories, and Apple does smartphones very well.
Apple’s scale comes with a business model that sets it aside from many of the more difficult choices in tech. If you don’t have a search engine or a social network and messed up your attempt at an ad business, it’s easier to say you won’t try to work out what people are interested in. You’re also free to treat privacy as merely an engineering challenge, much like security or performance, and to sell it as a feature. That’s not to say that Apple isn’t sincere when it says that “privacy is a fundamental human right” — indeed, Tim Cook, despite his public persona as a bland supply-chain engineer whose secret pleasure is an extra energy bar, has used Apple’s voice for social causes far more than Steve Jobs ever did. But if you’ve spent a decade making Apple the privacy company, that makes it easier to sell a credit card, or (one day) a pair of glasses with built-in AI-powered cameras. Privacy is another building block.