Anti-Competitive AND Potentially Creepy
I’m at WWDC and don’t have time to fully polish my thoughts, but I thought this was important enough to post a rough draft… please excuse the rough edges and rambling. I was quoted in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, but the story just didn’t go deep enough into my thoughts about this fascinating turn of events.
The new terms in section 3.3.9 of the iOS developer agreement are all about Apple taking back control of how developers and third parties access and use sensitive user data on their iOS platform. The amount and detail of data that can be gleaned from a person’s mobile device is absolutely staggering and I honestly think that Apple has been a bit naive about how developers have been collecting, processing, and using data from iOS devices.
Last fall I was pitched an advertising platform for displaying the Honeywell ads in my Gas Cubby by FRAM app. The goal of this ad platform was to build a network of apps using their ad analytics so that they could cross pollinate data to deliver laser focused ads. Let’s say one app collects a user’s UDID, and because the app has sync, the person’s email address, or maybe the GPS coordinates of all the gas stations they’ve visited in the last 6 months (because an ad is served every time the user launches the app at a gas station, and the ad requests the user’s location to provide a targeted ad). Then that same person plays a game that asks their age to customize the experience (and that data is also packaged with the UDID as all analytics are). Then a 3rd party browser app sends a users search terms to better serve ads. And other games just log gaming sessions, sending the user’s UDID and detailed stats on when and how long they play certain games.
So, as the ad network grows, it’s absolutely incredible the depth of information that developers can collect and send to analytics/ad platforms over time. And that data is all quite easy to correlate based on the unique device identifier (UDID). Do you remember what a big fuss everyone made when Facebook used Beacon to start delivering “more relevant” ads by scraping personal information. Well, that’s what’s been slowly building right under the noses of mobile users and generally without their consent.
When you use Google search and other Google products, they collect a tremendous amount of information and use that information to customize and better serve the ads that are the core of their business. Many users don’t even realize this is happening, others are comfortable with it and have some level of trust for Google’s intent in using that data.
Well, Apple doesn’t trust the benevolence of Google, developers, and other third parties involved in the iOS platform. Apple wants to control the flow of user information. They may use more detail in targeting iAds than they are going to allow others to use for their own ads and other analysis, and that’s a competitive advantage, but it’s a fair competitive advantage for them to maintain on their own platform. Apple hasn’t said AdMob can’t advertise on iOS, just that they must get written permission from Apple for ANY user and/or device information that is sent back to AdMob servers.
For reference, here’s a story about Amazon not allowing third parties access to user’s purchase history to prevent them from usurping Amazon’s incredibly valuable recommendation engine: http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/04/22/what-danger-do-blippy-and-swipely-pose-to-amazon/
But this goes way deeper than just screwing Ad Mob/Google and having a competitive advantage for iAds, it’s about Apple taking back control of how user and device information is accessed on their platform.
At the end of the day, when someone buys an iPhone, they are putting a certain amount of trust in Apple. And Apple is positioning the App Store as a place where users can trust the apps that they buy. See Neven Mrgan’s excellent post about the benefits of Apple’s walled garden approach: http://mrgan.tumblr.com/post/653708588/the-walled-garden
If Apple allows 3rd party apps unmitigated access to user data, they’ve essentially passed that trust and responsibility down a level to developers and other 3rd parties. If Apple is going to position the App Store as a walled garden of apps that are safe to buy and use, they MUST control these aspects of what’s going on under the hood.
If Apple didn’t do this, a year from now a self-conscious woman would look down at her phone and see an ad promoting weighloss products to overweight 41 year old women with thinning blond hair who live in a blue house and drive a black Ford Tauras. And that’s going to scare the crap out of her. Who’s she going to blame? What product is going to trashed in the press for enabling this kind of eerily specific advertising?
Many people think that this kind of targeting is the future of all advertising (it has been slowly and subversively taking over the web), and it might be, but mature companies realize that privacy is a very delicate thing and must be treated with extreme care. See this excellent Wired article about Thefind.com deciding it’s still just too “creepy”: http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2010/06/facebook-thefind/all/1
By controlling the flow of information and how targeted the iAd platform becomes, Apple is taking back control so that it can decide what is appropriate. And I trust Apple in that regard a hell of a lot more than I trust Google, Facebook, etc. The thing is, Apple is a hardware company, that’s where they have and will continue to make their money. Google, Facebook, and others trade in information. The more detailed and specific, the more valuable that information. For Apple, the better the overall experience of the device, the more valuable that device becomes. They can throttle ad targeting and the specificity of 3rd party analytics according to the taste of users. Trusting 3rd parties to do so would be incredibly foolish, and Apple seems to have just recently figured that out.
Then there’s Google’s incredible competitive advantage in being able to track copious amounts of device and user demographic data, usage patterns, and other data on a competitor’s platform. This deserves another full blog post, but I’ll quickly preview my thoughts…
If you think about it, Google (via Ad Mob) being able to collect specific usage data about iOS would be a HUGE competitive advantage in shaping their own Android strategy.
This is a completely reasonable attempt by Apple to prevent their direct competitor from gaining a competitive advantage. In fact, Google may have spent the $700 million (a ridiculous sum of money for what it appears they were buying) for just this reason. It’s essentially like the Greeks having been able to just buy the Trojan Horse, with warriors already positioned inside, from someone who had established trust with the Trojans.
Oh, and there’s also AdMob’s incredibly flakey “Mobile Metrics” reports. They do such a hatchet job on those it must drive Apple nuts. Why do you think Apple cited so many “more reliable” sources of statistics on the mobile market during the keynote on Monday? Don’t even get me started on how poorly AdMob has been handling that data. Here’s a really smart take on it: http://www.cultofmac.com/admob-owned-by-google-shows-android-overtaking-iphone-in-web-traffic/40491
That’s pretty rough, but I’m still processing…