IT HAS become fashionable to talk about the big four tech companies — or “Gafa” (Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple) — as if they were one. Yet Apple has recently distanced itself from the others, with Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, describing Facebook’s practices as an “invasion of privacy” — an opinion that Mark Zuckerberg, the social network’s co-founder, dismissed as “glib”.
The war of words intensified when Apple announced that in the next version of its operating systems for computers and handheld devices, it would jam tools developed by Facebook to track users. Apple will also encourage people to limit their screen time — bad news for addictive social networks.
This highlights the difference between Apple and other Silicon Valley giants. At its heart, it sells hardware, while Google and Facebook are data companies. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos — the world’s richest person, with an estimated worth of £100bn — also runs a data-dependent business, despite sidelines such as The Washington Post and the spaceflight pioneer Blue Origin.
Seen in this way, Apple begins to look like the good guy. True, the flashy showmanship of the Steve Jobs era is gone — and since Jobs’s death, the company has failed to design a new product as groundbreaking as the iPad or iPhone. Its streaming service, Apple Music, was not launched until 2015, seven years after Spotify, and its investment in original programming, to rival Amazon and Netflix, has yet to generate a hit show.
Still, the idea that Apple is a poor relation says something about the insane expectations we place on the big four. In reality, Apple’s hardware business has been so successful that it hasn’t needed to diversify: it is on course to be the first company valued at a trillion dollars. And while iPhone sales have slowed, the company has kept investors happy by announcing it will start using its huge cash pile for acquisitions and to buy back stock.
Under Jobs, Apple grabbed the headlines. Now it grabs cash. But rather that than sell our data.
Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman