THE BLOG

Apple's New Niche Is Privacy

11/06/2014 12:11 BST | Updated 10/08/2014 10:59 BST

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When Apple released its first iPad in 2010 it had a pretty obvious advantage over its competition - there simply wasn't any. Sure, Microsoft and friends brought out the first Tablet PC way back in 2002, but nobody wanted one. It was clunky, ran Windows and had a stylus. What made the iPad different was that it managed that elusive yet magical synergy of hardware and software, in a product that just clicked with people as soon as they touched one.

Once again Apple had done the impossible and created a whole new billion dollar market out of thin air. It took the competition a long time to catch up, but now they're pretty much there. These days you can buy a comparable Samsung (or other manufacturer) tablet running Android, or a Kindle Fire and be hard pressed to notice the difference at first glance. Even Microsoft is back in the game with its new Surface Pro 3. Amazon with its Kindle Fire range in particular has the ability to match Apple for ease of use, and has the same protective walled-garden approach, thanks to its online store, which already has your credit card details safely locked away, making it just as easy to install apps and buy ebooks as it is using iTunes and the App Store on the iPad. Fire OS (a fork of Google's Android) is simple to use too, and while it's a little like being trapped behind a toddler gate, while the grown ups have a dinner party downstairs, you can still do pretty much everything you want to do - email, Facebook, Twitter, Plants vs Zombies, the list goes on.

This presents a problem for Apple. Why should people keep on paying a hefty premium for Apple tablets when the competition now makes 'good enough' versions that are dramatically cheaper?

It seems that one of the key differentiators that Apple sees in its future is privacy. Everybody knows that Google has a poor track record on privacy - its whole business model is about finding out as much about you as it can, so it can sell you stuff. In the new Apple operating systems iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite, previewed this month at WWDC, DuckDuckGo the most popular search engine that doesn't store information about you, is being built right into the Safari web browser, and iOS 8 has expanded control over location services, and even randomises your iPhone's MAC address when connecting to a Wi-Fi network, to prevent you being tracked by location trackers in real stores.

Apple is also cracking down on apps that insist you spam them all over social media to earn more points or in-game rewards. It seems to be a pernicious feature of the fermium app model, and while it obviously works for developers, most people are tired of having their Facebook feeds jammed up with this rot.

On the desktop, one of the key differentiators between Apple and Microsoft is still the lack of viruses on the Mac platform. (Yes, I know that technically some Mac 'viruses' do exist, but in reality it still isn't a problem Mac users actually need to worry about, even if they should. Most Mac users still don't have virus software, and their Macs don't fall over and stop working because of it). By keeping the Apple experience a secure and clean one on its tablets too, Apple can find a new niche at the premium end of the market, without the annoyances that will start to typify other devices.

But these sorts of differentiators are only going to matter so long as we care about our privacy, and what's crazy is that most people don't seem to. To keep its niche Apple needs to start educating people about the need for privacy. But perhaps it's only a matter of time before the invasiveness of some services starts to really impinge upon our lives. If the endless tracking and recording of our every action online continues unabated it won't be long before personal shopper holograms are trying to cajole us into stores on the high street by name. I can imagine it now: 'Hey Graham, I see you brought a new pair of shoes last week. How about some polish to go with them? Oh, and by the way, if you share our latest status update today you get 20% off!'

By cracking down now it looks like Apple is positioning itself as the premium-priced alternative to all that.