Five myths about Apple

Harry McCracken, the technology editor for Fast Company, also covered the tech industry for Time and founded the Technologizer site.

Even after the rise of Google and Facebook, Apple remains the most closely watched technology company of them all. From the Apple II's debut in 1977 through the iPhone - the 21st century's defining gadget, which took Apple to profitable new heights - skeptics and hyper-loyal fans have tracked its every move. It shouldn't shock anyone, then, that Apple has always generated an unusually high volume of misunderstandings masquerading as common knowledge.

Myth No. 1: Apple is the most valuable company in history.

Apple achieved a historic feat when it hit a value of $1 trillion in August. To many observers, that made it “the most valuable company of all time.”

But Apple's milestone was specific to market capitalization on a U.S. stock exchange. Eleven years before, PetroChina - the Chinese state-owned oil and gas company - briefly hit $1.2 trillion on its opening day on the Shanghai Stock Exchange. (It subsequently spiraled into what Bloomberg News called "the biggest stock collapse in world history.") Another state-owned petroleum behemoth, Saudi Arabia's Aramco (which plans to hold an IPO by 2021 at a valuation of up to $2 trillion), is worth $1 trillion to $1.5 trillion today, according to most analysts' estimates.

At any rate, a trillion dollars isn't what it used to be. Adjusting for inflation, as the Motley Fool's Alex Planeshas pointed out, centuries-old shipping conglomerates make Apple look downright dinky. The value of the Dutch East India Company peaked at more than $7 trillion in modern dollars during the "tulip mania" bubble in the 17th century.

Myth No. 2: Apple doesn’t profit from its users' personal information.

Apple CEO Tim Cook is fond of reminding us that the company is unlike some other tech giants - think Google and Facebook - because its main business is selling hardware, not pelting consumers with targeted advertising based on information it’s collected about them. “We could make a ton of money if we monetized our customer - if our customer was our product,” he told Recode’s Kara Swisher and MSNBC’s Chris Hayes in an interview in March. “We’ve elected not to do that.” As UBS analyst Steven Milunovich has said, “Monetizing hardware has its advantages in creating trust.”

It’s true that Apple has opted out of the ad business and doesn’t snoop on users of its products; it even makes it tougher for other companies to do so (the Safari browser was the first to block third-party cookies by default). But a recent Goldman Sachs report estimated that Google will pay Apple $12 billion next year to remain the default search engine on the iPhone, iPad and Mac. Let’s be clear: The only reason Google would be willing to fork over a sum anywhere in that range is because targeting Apple fans with ads is so profitable. Apple is making a tremendous amount of money from the tracking of its customers' search results; it has merely rented the right to scrutinize users to a third party.


Myth No. 3: Apple designs its products to quickly become obsolete.

From the moment Apple announced its first iPhone in 2007, pundits have accused the company of willfully curtailing its smartphones' useful life, the better to sway us into buying new ones on a regular schedule. The product is “a slam dunk of planned obsolescence,” wrote TechCrunch’s Seth Porges upon the phone’s debut. Last December, when Apple acknowledged that it had tweaked iOS to slow down older iPhones, the cynics thought they’d found their planned-obsolescence smoking gun. “The slowing down of older devices seems to have the deliberate aim of pushing Apple customers towards purchasing the new model,” declared a French consumer group whose complaint led to a government investigation.

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All but lost in the controversy was Apple’s sensible (and true) explanation: It was “throttling” those iPhones because their aging batteries tended to cause abrupt shutdowns - a flaw that, left unchecked, might have not only been irritating but also led consumers to replace their phones prematurely. The company responded to consumer ire by offering discounted battery replacements and adding an option in iOS to turn off the battery-health monitoring feature that initiated the slowdowns - steps that, if Apple had taken them in the first place, might have allowed it to sidestep the kerfuffle.

What's more, analyst Horace Dediu, of Asymco, estimated that people hold onto their Apple gadgets (iPhones, iPads, Macs, iPod Touches, Apple Watches) for a considerable time, considering how fast computing technology in general evolves: four years and three months on average. And there's evidence that the company makes a good-faith effort to ensure that users continue to get good value out of their purchases. IOS 12, its newest mobile operating system, is tuned to wring maximum performance out of older hardware, extending the useful life of even five-year-old iPhones.

Myth No. 4: A disruptor under Steve Jobs, Apple now plays it safe.

A frequent charge is that the company has "lost its mojo" under Cook, as an NPR writer put it in 2017, because it no lo nger turns entire sectors upside down. "This is no longer the Apple . . . that seemingly every couple of years rocked the consumer electronics world with a product so innovative that it changed industries forever," asserted an ABC News writer in 2013, reacting to the iPhone 5S and 5C.

But this revisionist history has a few problems. One, the gaps between Apple innovations under Jobs were greater than people recall: Almost six years elapsed between the iPod and the iPhone, for instance. (Cook hasn't been CEO for much longer than that.) Second, Jobs was often criticized precisely for offering unexciting, incremental improvements. A Jobs presentation in August 2006 produced "one yawn after another," observed a Wired writer, unsatisfied with a new Mac and a new operating system that was "more about tweaks than big new functions."

In truth, Jobs's product development skills always had as much to do with evolution as revolution. Yes, the 2007 iPhone was a breakthrough. But the App Store, which unlocked most of its power, didn't arrive until a year later. It took another year after that until the phone's camera got features such as autofocus and the ability to shoot video. Today's Apple - steadily improving the Apple Watch of 2015, for example - follows a similar strategy.

Myth No. 5: Macs aren’t susceptible to viruses and other malware.

Back in 2006, Apple pitched the Mac on TV with a commercial that showed comedian and writer John Hodgman introducing himself as a PC, sneezing uncontrollably and then toppling over - to dramatize the fact that there were “114,000 known viruses for PCs.” Actor Justin Long, portraying a Mac, wasn’t susceptible to any of them. “There are, as far as we know, no Mac OS X viruses in the wild,” reported Fortune in 2009. Whether Macs get viruses remains a frequently addressed question online.

It is true that Macs are less malware-ridden than their Windows counterparts. But partly that’s because Apple ships only 7 percent of the world’s computers, making it a far less juicy target for bad guys. Still, the software company Malwarebytes reported a 270 percent increase in Mac-specific viruses from 2016 to 2017.

And a fixation on viruses neglects the modern era’s biggest threats. Social-engineering attacks - which attempt to fool you into making mistakes such as handing over credit card details, passwords or corporate secrets - are surging. Owning an Apple offers no protection. Other assaults don’t require access to your computer at all: Almost 150 million U.S. consumers had personal information, including Social Security numbers, leaked in last year’s Equifax breach, which occurred when the credit-reporting agency failed to patch its servers. When it comes to security, increasingly we’re all in the same leaky boat - Mac and Windows users alike.

The Washington Post