Privacy as a Selling Point

Put on your tinfoil hats, boys and girls! We’re off on an adventure.

Yesterday, Microsoft announced new features in Windows 10 and Office designed to keep users safe. Their new strategy is presented as three “pillars”: security, intelligence and cloud.

Personally, I am pleased to see Microsoft putting such an effort towards user safety. Combined with the focus on adding intelligence features to their software offerings, it shows that they want to grow their business “the old fashioned way”: making relevant and useful products for their customers. It’s an approach that sadly isn’t as common as it should be, these days.

However, there are caveats. Shocking, I know. Both the added security and intelligence features require sending your data to Microsoft servers for analysis. I personally don’t trust Microsoft to do this in a way that maintains user privacy. There is scant information on the privacy protections implemented with these features, which probably means they are minimal at best.

Also in the news, Google just released their new messaging app (I know, I know) called Allo. Allo promises great new features like “smart replies” and deep integration of the Google Assistant into the app. The only problem is, you guessed it: your messages have to sent and stored on Google servers so it can analyze them for all that fancy functionality (and improving your ad profiling). But hey, it’s got cool stickers.

This frustrates me. Apple so far seems to be the only company who recognizes that people want to feel like their data is safe, from snooping governments, third-party advertisers, or even deep machine learning. This is the number one bullet in the “pros” column for supporting Apple, in my mind.

Apple is not without a few bullets in the “cons” column, though.

Apple hardware is either expensive, outdated, or both. I just finished building a new PC a couple of weeks ago. It cost less than $1000 and is an absolute beast in terms of hardware specifications. It’s no slouch in the looks department either: Everything’s neatly bundled up in a slick metal case. I can upgrade any part whenever I want, choosing from a multitude of suppliers when I do so. Hard to beat that value proposition.

On the software front, Apple’s first-party applications have been lagging for years, while Microsoft has made impressive strides in attempting to lose the cruft that has historically plagued Windows and Office. Google is eating into that market as well with their Google Docs and Drive web services, which are simplified but capable and very, very polished. Let’s not even get into Apple’s web services track record.

Let’s look at things in the mobile arena. I switched from an iPhone to a Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge in the spring, because the price was right. Switching from iOS to Android has taken some getting used to, but overall I’ve found myself very happy with Android. Much happier than I expected. Android’s killer feature is its customization – if you want to do something with your Android phone, you probably can, and its never boring because you can always switch things up. New launcher, new icons, new firmware? Lots of options, but no obligation- if you want to stick with the default, it will work just fine.

The Samsung hardware is nothing to sneeze at- even with the S6 having been on the market for over a year, it’s still plenty fast and the camera is great. The design is nice too; Samsung has finally moved away from the “iPhone-esque” form factors that plague Android handsets and developed their own look.

Back to Apple: they’ve just released the iPhone 7, which is undoubtedly fast and sleek. I’m sure the camera is amazing. It’s also missing a headphone jack, for reasons? Much virtual ink has been spilled over that subject so I won’t belabour the point, other than to say that I think it was a stupid decision. All in all, a perfectly fine handset with some good points and bad points.

Then there’s iOS: they’ve added some additional features but nothing ground-breaking, and otherwise it’s business as usual. This is my main complaint with iOS, having used Android for a while now: not that it’s bad, it’s simply boring. They’re not going to entice me back with “it’s the same but a little better”. Or stickers (the new emoji, apparently). If I could have some additional customization without the headaches and security risks of jailbreaking, I’d be sorely tempted to move back in with Apple. It’d also help if iCloud could be a bit more dependable.

So here’s where things stand: either I can choose Apple, the company that respects my privacy more than their competitors, has expensive hardware and mediocre software, or I can embrace the hard work that their peers are putting in, and ship all my data wholesale to third-party advertisers and the US government (as a foreign national, I have even fewer rights when it comes to US government surveillance).

It’s incredibly frustrating. I wish that more companies would wake to the fact that privacy can be an important selling point, an incredible (and rare) value to offer the consumer. I don’t think I’ll hold my breath, however…