When you hand over your hard-earned cash for a Mac or iPhone or iPad, or when you log into Facebook.com to check up on your fourth-grade crush, you probably have no delusions about the nature of your relationship with the two tech giants: Apple and Facebook are trying to make a buck off you.
Yet to hear many tech companies tell it, they're not after your money. Sure, Apple is the most valuable company in the world, Google is making money hand over fist, Instagram is cashing Facebook's billion-dollar check, and Facebook is trying to do everything in its power to turn your information into revenue. But they're only in business to create stunning devices or cool services to make the world a better place, Silicon Valley executives love to say -- hinting that any profit is just, aw shucks, a coincidence.
A recent quote from Apple chief designer Jonathan Ive confirms that this do-gooder myth -- we're just here to make life better, business be damned -- is alive and well. But remember, as Apple prepares to pull the sheet off its newest phone while Facebook tirelessly tries to keep you on its site, that this myth, like any public relations stunt, is really just meant to sell you more stuff.
"Our goal absolutely at Apple is not to make money," Ive told a crowd at the British Embassy's "Creative Summit" this summer. "This may sound a little flippant, but it's the truth. Our goal and what gets us excited is to try to make great products."
Here, Ive is parroting his old boss: The late Steve Jobs would claim he was more interested in making great products than in making great profits, even while recognizing one often leads to the other. Jobs would shun regular meetings with shareholders. Serving as interim CEO with $1 pay and no stock options after he returned to Apple in the late 1990s, he would joke, "I make 50 cents for showing up and another 50 cents for performance," according to biographer Walter Isaacson.
Facebook co-founder (and fellow billionaire) Mark Zuckerberg seems to have a similar aversion to money. He raised eyebrows when, in the very document his company filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission to become a publicly traded corporation, he wrote, "Facebook was not originally created to be a company. It was built to accomplish a social mission -- to make the world more open and connected." Note the irony of a business signaling its disinterest in profit as it pitches itself to shareholders interested solely in profit.
Elsewhere, Zuckerberg has suggested the corporate model was just one that Facebook had to adopt. "The reason why we build a company is because I think a company is by far the best way to get the best people together and align their incentives around doing something great," Zuck said in a human resources video.
The same idealistic streak trickles down to startups, where making money takes a backseat to developing good products -- for the short term at least. For example, at the New York Tech Meetup, a monthly gathering of several hundred young tech enthusiasts, speakers have been booed when revenue was brought up.
In part, the do-gooder fib has persisted so long because there is true altruism online. Netizens edit pages on Wikipedia, submit links to Reddit and even engage in "hacktivism" through Anonymous not for money but for goodwill. Often, these folks are genuinely interested in helping humanity through their Internet activity -- and aren't paid to do it.
But as much as they'd like to pretend to be, Apple, Facebook and its ilk aren't charities; they're corporations. We can trust that Jobs did believe his business was good for the world and that Zuck does believe. But it's also important for both companies' carefully manicured mystique for us to think of them as more than just businesses. Facebook chooses such cozy words as "like" and "share" to cloud its relationship with advertisers, according to academic research. Apple happily encourages the idea, dear to its greatest fans, that it's selling a philosophy, not products.
Even tech industry insiders sometimes take issue with the do-gooder myth. Larry Ellison, the unapologetic billionaire CEO of Oracle, is happy to put the wannabe saints of Silicon Valley in their place. Speaking with journalist Mark Leibovich in 2000 about tech titans who pass off their work as "Crusades for Good," Ellison offered a sarcastic description of his company's mission that poked fun at the being-good-matters-more-than-the-billions ethos.
"Oh, well, the reason we're doing software here at Oracle is because someday children will use this software, and we wouldn't want to leave a single child behind," Ellison told Leibovich. "If I could just make the world a better place, what I really care about is making the world a better place, and that's why I'm doing this."
If they were entirely philanthropically inclined, Apple and Facebook could have taken an alternate route: Make like nonprofit Wikipedia, the Internet's sixth most visited website, and get out of the money game altogether. If they really didn't care about profit, wouldn't they have done that?
Or they could keep making money and adopt Google's more honest approach. In its published corporate philosophy, the company unambiguously states "Google is a business." It also insists, "You can make money without doing evil."
There's nothing wrong with being a for-profit business. It's what America does. But they should at least be forthright about it. Yes, your products are awesome, and thank you for them. But you're not selling them out of the goodness of your hearts.
When $1-a-year Steve Jobs permanently re-signed on to run Apple in 2000, dropping the "interim" from his title, he was offered a jet and 14 million stock options. His response? He wanted 6 million more. Suddenly, profit mattered to Jobs again.
Follow Dino Grandoni on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@dino_grandoni