When talking to the world at large, the leaders in Silicon Valley tend to focus on optimism and excitement over their wares and the future of technology. Sure they may bicker about one another's products behind closed doors, but rarely do we catch a glimpse of the emperors without their clothes. That is what makes the recent public tiff between Tim Cook and Eric Schmidt so fascinating.
To quickly recap, last week Tim Cook shared an online message about Apple's business model where he stated the following:
"We sell products. We don't build a profile based on your email content or web browsing habits to sell to advertisers....We don't monetize the information you store...We don't read your email or messages to get information to market to you."
You can read between the lines pretty quickly to know he's talking about Google. Okay, fair enough. With online privacy such a hot topic these days, Cook clearly wants to draw a line in the sand separating Apple's world from Google's.
While I couldn't agree more with Cook's words, that's not the real story here. The real story is how Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt responded. The best response would have been no response. That way, Cook's statement would have left nothing more than a small digital footprint forgotten by dinnertime. But Schmidt chose a different path. The king of "Do No Evil" (Google's mantra), Schmidt decided to take Cook's words as a personal affront.
Suddenly a bullying Schmidt went on the defensive. And not just with some released statement to the media. No, the next thing you know, he's appearing on CNBC's Squawk Box, asking aloud if Cook is familiar with how Google works. First off, let me answer that one for Mr. Cook. Yes, we all are, but I'll get to that point in a moment.
My question is why is Mr. Schmidt so angry? Is privacy a sore point with him? Considering that he next went on to Bloomberg TV to demean the new iPhone6, one would have to assume the answer is "yes."
I guess the kid gloves are off now, albeit in different ways. In one corner we have Mr. Cook taking the high road, with a thinly veiled criticism and factually supported statement versus Mr. Schmidt taking that other road, hurling insults, mocking, and playing playground bully.
Reading between the lines here, what is really going on? Well Google's privacy violations that Mr. Cook calls out are hardly news. They've been going on for some time.
• Google admits to violating people's privacy during its Street View mapping project
• Google sued for data mining
• Wire-tapping lawsuit filed against Google
• France fines Google over privacy violations
• Canada cites Google for privacy violations
You get the point. Eric Schmidt even admitted on his Squawk Box appearance that Google reads Gmail messages: "We do targeted ads against Gmail, which we've done for a decade." Yet rather than just come clean about the modus vivendi of his company, Schmidt had the chutzpah to say that what Google does and the philosophy it uses is done to "make your life better."
Data mining doesn't make my life better. Violating my privacy doesn't make my life better. Tracking me with geo-location doesn't simplify my world. I'm guessing here that monopolizing the Internet and tracking my every move as a means of corporate profit probably benefits his company more than it does me.
In the grand scheme of things, this public tiff emphasizes how important online privacy has become in the eyes of industry titans and the masses their products cater to. You have one leader (Apple) telling everyone that we hear you and that the technology we design caters to your privacy concerns. You have another leader (Google) trying to redirect our privacy concerns by making an indignant media splash ridiculing the first leader. Perhaps indeed, the emperor has no clothes, so distraction is his only course of action.
As protection of privacy continues to take shape as a viable marketing proposition, indeed a unique selling proposition (USP), consumers will learn what companies truly offer the privacy and safety they seek. New apps and networks will also become powerful enough that we will question why we ever put up with an online world lacking such rights before.
Tim Cook is wisely aligning Apple as a conscious capitalist company and acknowledging to everyone that the next wave of the Internet is here. The companies and innovators with high integrity and compelling products mirroring this tenet will reap the greatest benefits, encounter the least competition, and likely succeed at a level beyond their expectations. This new opportunity illustrates that business and social/ethical responsibility are not polar opposites (sorry Mr. Schmidt) but rather a powerful unified force.