Software

Conflicted much, Apple? Safari, iAd, and how Apple's expanding mission are driving conflicting priorities

Apple wants to do what's right for customers, but an expanding vision is leading to conflicts. Matt Asay explains.

Apple

It's hard to understand Apple sometimes.

Apple bought a mobile advertising business but now is building ad-blocking support into its Safari web browser. It hosts a booming app economy that depends on gathering and monetizing personal data yet strenuously argues for consumer data privacy.

Apple also celebrates the web and even makes significant investments in enabling web application performance yet seriously lags rival browsers in innovation.

What gives?

The good Apple giveth, and it taketh away

Just a year ago, it seemed that Apple was on a positive trajectory relative to the web. While Google dithered on HTML5, Apple pulled WkWebView out of its hat for iOS 8, delivering dramatically better web application performance.

As I wrote then, "Apple isn't known for being a champion of open source or open standards, but with iOS 8, it has become both."

Those were good times.

Unfortunately, according to web developer Nolan Lawson, they haven't lasted:

"In recent years, Apple's strategy towards the web can most charitably be described as 'benevolent neglect.' Although performance has been improving significantly with JSCore and the new WKWebView, the emerging features of the web platform—offline storage, push notifications, and 'installable' webapps—have been notably absent on Safari."

One could easily interpret this as Apple's way of shoring up its multi-billion dollar App Store business, but that would be too facile, and it doesn't account for the things Apple has done (like the WkWebView improvements) that potentially cut against App Store revenue.

Lawson gives a more credible reason, suggesting that Apple may simply be responding to iOS developers and their demands for more native APIs and improvements to the Swift programming language. This is more credible, because it fits with Apple's insistence that it's completely focused on delighting customers.

Different ways to delight

The problem, of course, is that there are different ways to delight, and Apple seems caught between conflicting priorities on a regular basis.

This wouldn't be a big deal—all companies struggle with priorities—except that we've come to expect a singular focus from Apple. This is the company that famously kills far more projects than it greenlights in order to maintain a singular focus on a blessed customer experience. As Steve Jobs once decreed, "Focus is about saying no."

Except that the kinder, gentler Apple seems to want to say yes. At least until it doesn't.

Apple bought Quattro Wireless in 2010 to improve the online advertising experience, helping businesses "create the kind of advertising that captures attention and drives results," as the iAd page explains. Or as then CEO Steve Jobs bluntly said:

"Most [mobile] advertising sucks."

iAd promised to change that, and current CEO Tim Cook has gone out of his way to stress that Apple would do advertising in a way that doesn't sacrifice consumer privacy. Except that it does, and perhaps with no ad-blocking workaround. As reported by The New York Times, Apple "does use private data in many ways, including to build and market its own products, and to build its own advertising network." (It also welcomes all sorts of apps, from Google search to Facebook, that mine consumer data for profit.)

But Apple's ad network, unlike Google's, isn't subject to Apple's new ad-blocking support. This is because iAd runs at the OS-level and therefore can skirt the ad-blocking restrictions that apply to everyone else.

All for a few hundred million in ad revenue, a rounding error on Apple's top-line revenue chart.

What would help

Apple is clearly conflicted, and such conflicts will only grow as the company's ambition expands beyond devices. Once it jumps into cloud services of various stripes, advertising, and more, Apple will constantly be forced to trade off customer delight for Apple delight.

Maybe it would help if Apple were more open about these conflicts.

For years, Apple has generally been unwilling to engage in industry conversations. Apple employees generally don't speak at conferences (the company's recent public support for Apache Mesos is the exception that proves the rule), except once a year when Apple hosts its own. It (very) selectively talks to the press. In short, Apple does what Apple does, and we find out about it later.

Tim Cook strikes me as the perfect Apple CEO to engender a new Apple, one that admits to the trade-offs it's making rather than falsely stating that "We don't want your data." It does.

Apple could also come clean on why it's letting Safari languish. "Because we care more about what our native app developers are telling us," would be a fair response. But we're not hearing that. Developers are just left with a browser that sits in a privileged position but keeps failing to live up to its birthright.

We probably can't expect an unconflicted Apple. But we can reasonably hope for a more open one.

Also see

About Matt Asay

Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox