The Texas Plant Tour Was a Lose/Lose Situation for Tim Cook

The news started out benign enough, at least in the context of living in today’s timeline. The Twittersphere couldn’t contain its giggles when US President Donald Trump took to his legislative platform of choice to announce that he’d just “opened” a new Apple manufacturing plant in Texas.

The event, in fact, wasn’t an opening, and the plant’s existence had nothing to do with Trump’s influence. What transpired was a tour of a facility owned by a company called Flex. Flex has been assembling Mac Pros within those walls since 2013. This is nothing new.

Shortly after, however, the wheels started coming off the bus for Apple and CEO Tim Cook. Cook had accompanied Trump on the tour and was standing by him during a news conference when the president made a series of false or unsubstantiated claims about his involvement with Apple, the plant, and its operations. He then launched into a verbal diatribe on the US Congress as well as the media.

While this was happening, two other events took place simultaneously.

  1. Trump’s people filmed and photographed the event and used it as part of their re-election effort. And,
  2. Tim Cook stood by and didn’t say a single word.

Now, it’s no secret that Apple’s PR department hasn’t had an easy couple of weeks. Its relationship with China, as well as its perceived abandonment of those struggling in Hong Kong (and weak attempts at an explanation), have left it in the impossible situation of wanting to sell millions of its products to millions of people whose governments are perfectly fine with that – so long as those people can’t use the products to learn about, discuss, criticize, protest, or change their governments.

This post, however, isn’t about corporations and the roles and responsibilities (if any) they should be forced to take on in the fight against oppressive governments. It’s about Tim Cook, his thrusting of Apple into political Thunderdome, and where this all goes from here.

Under Jobs, Apple rarely strayed into politics. Granted, the global situation was significantly different during those times and, frankly, Jobs just might not have seen the need. Had that need emerged, it’s really not too hard to imagine a flustered Jobs approaching a senator, or even a president, forgoing the handshake, looking the official in the eyes, and loudly asking just what exactly the fuck they thought they were doing.

Cook, however, is much more the statesman, and his use of Apple’s influence and power in the political arena hasn’t gone unnoticed. But yesterday’s events show that it’s time to start wondering just how far he’s willing to go to placate those who wield significant power over the world in which Apple operates and sells its wares.

For evidence of that claim, one needs only look as far as yesterday’s events. After the tour, a reporter asked Trump if he was considering making Apple exempt from a sweeping set of tariffs the administration is levying on goods imported from China. “We’re looking at that,” was his response.

Talk about a lose/lose situation. If this was a Choose Your Own Adventure book, no one would buy it.

To go to war with the White House and publicly challenge or correct the President of the United States and embarrass him while he’s considering tariffs that could cost your company ridiculous amounts of cash, turn to page 23.

To say nothing while the President of the United States misrepresents his involvement with your company and then uses it as a backdrop for a campaign video and a stage for attacking American institutions like Congress and the media, thus drawing the ire of the activist public, turn to page 45.

No thanks…I’m putting this piece of shit back on the shelf.

In the moment – a moment I’d wager that Cook didn’t know was coming – he had a fraction of a second to decide what to do, how to respond, weigh the risks, phrase a possible response, and then execute that response. Done properly, his best case scenario might have been a Twitter rebuke and an hour or two in the news cycle. Done too aggressively, however, and the impact to Apple could have been hundreds of millions, or even billions of dollars, as the tariff decision just so happened to not go Apple’s way.

Apple’s fans and customers are frustrated with the company and its recent placation and, some would say, embrace of China’s invasion of its citizens’ privacy, oppressors in Hong Kong, and…well…the Trump administration as a whole. Cook appears to be perfectly happy to kiss the ring and play the role of personal Apple Store Genius to the president.

But, he’s also being rewarded for his diplomacy. A tariff exemption would be a huge win for Apple, and Cook’s continued influence could potentially help shape technology policy for the foreseeable future. Apple’s influence on things like privacy, encryption, and even social issues both in and out of tech could be a net positive when compared to the alternatives.

Moving forward, however, some decisions need to be made and some boundaries need to be set. At the very least, some consideration needs to be taken in Cupertino for the optics of having the CEO of one of the world’s most beloved technology companies cozying up to one of the world’s most controversial leaders.

The fact is that Tim Cook got bullied yesterday. The question then is how much more shit he’s going to take before he reminds that bully that he runs a trillion-dollar company, and how he’ll counter if – no…when –the bully hits back again.

Apple TV+ Isn’t a Streaming Competitor – It’s an Add-on

With today’s launch of Disney+ the tech blog world is alight with comparisons to that other streaming service that launched this month, Apple TV+. Not content with simply having access to another library of content to enjoy, Apple TV+ is being tossed into cage match after cage match – first against stalwarts like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, and now against Disney+.

Apple TV+ versus Disney+ compared – the streaming wars escalate,” reads a headline on appleinsider. The lede? “The next phase of the streaming wars is upon us. On November 12, Disney+ launched with an overwhelming catalog of content. Here’s how it stacks up to Apple TV+.”

Apple is, obviously, quaking in their trillion dollar boots. Do you know how concerned they are?

The latest App Store email subject reads as follows: “Be the first to stream Disney+…right now!” I don’t want to get too crazy here but it’s almost like Apple sent out an email to its App Store subscriber list and told everyone about Disney+!

Wait – that’s exactly what happened. Here’s why.

Apple TV+ is not a fighter in the “streaming wars.” Apple TV+ wasn’t launched to get anyone to drop their Netflix subscription or unsubscribe from Hulu or force a choice between it and Disney+. How could it be? At launch, the service only offers original programming from Apple’s own studio. And regardless of how good it is (audience approval currently sits at an average of about 90% across the four main titles) it can’t hold a candle to the one-two punches of partnered content plus original content offered by Netflix or anyone else in this arena.

But it doesn’t have to, and Apple knows that – it would just be really nice if the rest of the world could also figure it out. For those that are deep into the Apple ecosystem, Apple TV+ is just another service like News+ or Arcade. It is a value-add that only serves to make the ecosystem that much nicer. If you want to see what they’ve produced, you subscribe (assuming you don’t have it free for a year like most). If you don’t find any value in it, then skip it.

There is nothing lost or gained in either direction – especially at the non-trial rate of five whole dollars a month. Like the Mac and computers, the iPod and music, the iPhone and mobile communication…even the Apple Card and personal finance, Apple has simply taken entertainment and video content and given it its own touch.

“Wars” generally have victors. They usually come with winners at the expense of the losers. Apple TV+ could lose 70% of its subscribers tomorrow, disappear, and Apple would still be a trillion-dollar company. If Netflix lost 70% of its customers, Netflix would cease to exist.

If anything, Disney+ exists in the gray area between Netflix/Hulu and Apple TV+. Its library is vast, but it is also exclusive – it just owns more properties, and those properties are big. After its own content combined with Marvel, Star Wars, and Fox, everything else is just icing on a delicious, mouse head-shaped cake. The move to pull it all under one paywalled garden might have pissed off the consumer world, but the business move was brilliant. And at just two dollars more per month than Apple TV+, it will be a fantastic add-on to any folder full of icons for our streaming services of choice. But, just like Apple TV+, it’s not going to replace Netflix for anyone. Or Hulu. Or Amazon Prime Video. It’s just another option. And if it fails (doubtful), Disney will keep chugging along.

So let’s cut the drama, stop trying to force competition where there really isn’t any, grab a beverage and a snack, and just enjoy whatever content we want on whatever service we want. There’s certainly no shortage.

Beside, the real war is between the streaming services and the cable companies. And the more we focus on pitting the streaming services against one another rather than realizing that we now have the greatest al la carte collection of content available to us we’ve ever had, the happier the cable execs are to sit back and watch.

Apple Card, Hansson, and Our Insatiable Appetite for Outrage

I’m scrolling through my Twitter feed this weekend when something catches my eye. It’s a retweet of someone I’ve never heard of and the first sentence has me doing an instant double-take.

“The @AppleCard is such a fucking sexist program.”

Cue the sound of a needle scratching to a halt on a record (some of you know this sound, others will have no idea what I’m talking about). This person is levying accusations of sexism against…a credit card. Ok – you have my attention. Who are you?

A click on the profile tells me that the accuser operating as the Twitter handle @dhh is the creator of the web development framework Ruby on Rails, the founder and CTO at Basecamp, a best-selling author, and a Le Mans race car driver. I still don’t know his name because none of that means anything to me and he doesn’t have it on his profile. I guess he just assumes that you don’t have to Google to know that his actual name is David Heinemeier Hansson.

Hansson is pissed. He’s gone on a multi-tweet tirade detailing the saga of his wife’s application for an Apple Card; a credit card program created by Apple and issued by banking juggernaut Goldman Sachs. Her application returned a credit limit 20x lower than his even though their finances are unified and they’ve been married “for a long time.”

In a series of tweets that attacks everything from blind faith in algorithms to mansplaining; from the utter shock that support reps wouldn’t have any insights into the proprietary algorithms used by Goldman to determine creditworhthiness (“Hi tier 1 customer service rep new hires! Today we’re going to tell you about our algorithm that we use to issue $10 billion in credit for a new credit card!”) to his thoughts on society’s marginalization of women, Hannson’s Twitter tirade takes more turns than…ahem…a Le Mans race track. Sorry – I had to. And yes, I’m just as mad at myself for making the joke as you are for me making the joke.

The tirade ends with Hansson’s lamenting a knee-jerk signup for a credit check with TransUnion and, according to a posted screenshot, paying for it with an Apple Card (I wish I was kidding). His wife is also given a “VIP” update to her credit limit; a fact that came as a shock to many. You see, for those without 356,000 followers on Twitter, the only available remedy for when your limit comes in lower than you’d like or your APR comes in higher than you’d like is to wait six months, establish a history, and then try again. It is indeed a truly hard life here among us simpletons.

Our tale, however, does not conclude here. Hansson’s rant got the attention of the New York Department of Financial Services, an agency tasked with regulating Wall Street (so, you know, they’re really effective and totally on your side). A spokesman confirmed that an investigation is underway, so taxpayer money is now being used to look into why Hansson’s wife got a credit limit lower than what he thought she should get.

I assure you that nothing will ever sum up the first part of the 21st century more than what you just read.

It’s the perfect storm of navel gazing, virtue signaling, and social justice (in fact, that’s also the perfect description of most of Hansson’s Twitter feed). And it is crystal clear evidence not of a society’s, bank’s, or tech company’s inherent bias against women, but our society’s outright addiction to outrage. In fact, I’d argue that Hansson’s tweets were custom-tailored, designed, engineered, manufactured, and packaged specifically to create as much outrage as humanly possible. The sad part isn’t that it worked, but that it worked so well.

Acceptance of Hansson’s premise would first mean accepting the idea that one of the largest financial institutions the world has ever seen decided to anchor a significant portion of its business to not extending credit to half of its customer population – a scenario made even more preposterous by the fact that according to most available sources, iPhone ownership is driven by women.

Second, you’d have to have irrefutable proof that this was happening across the board. Application and acceptance of an Apple Card is done completely through an iPhone. Decisions are generally rendered in under a minute and, as previously stated, Goldman has thus far issued about $10 billion in Apple Card credit.

So, aside from a few highly-amplified voices on Twitter (yes, I acknowledge that Woz himself chimed in with a similar story), what has the global breakdown been on Goldman credit issued to men versus women? Does a human being check these numbers at any sort of interval so they have something to say at staff meetings on how things are going with Apple Card? Do we seriously believe that a person of the caliber necessary to work in such a position lacks sufficient gray matter between their ears to be capable of wondering – perhaps even aloud – why the company is issuing orders of magnitude more credit to men than women; especially when more women own iPhones than men (thus leaving sweet, sweet Apple Card money on the table)?

Say it with me: anecdotal evidence is not good enough in these situations. This is true regardless of whether you’re a race car driver, a computational genius (put your pants back on Hansson, I was talking about Woz), or one of “the rest of us.” For every story that shared Hansson’s experience, I saw one that also had higher credit limits issued to women over men. Does that disqualify the accusation? What’s our actual sample we’re using to levy a claim of sexism in Apple Card issuance other than Twitter users who applied for Apple Cards? Or, is that all it takes now?

For this to be a systemic issue illustrative of one of society’s greatest woes, wouldn’t the discrepancy have to be so obvious that it would be virtually undeniable? After all, factors of 20x are large enough on their own. When scaled to $10 billion, they become even more magnified. Why then is this the first we’re hearing about this “crisis” since the Apple Card launched in August? Surely, the Hanssons and Wozniaks can’t be the first couples of means with iPhones to see such significant discrepancies in credit issued in the past few months. Before we start throwing Apple and Goldman execs in a lake to see if they float, shouldn’t we take a look at a bit more evidence?

Last, why is Apple even in this conversation, let alone accused of sexism itself? Apple’s not issuing the card – Goldman is. Apple’s not issuing the credit – Goldman is. Apple’s not coming after you if you don’t pay your balance – Goldman is. If accusations are going to be levied, shouldn’t they at least be levied at the correct party?

Don’t try to make that argument to Hansson though. “I’d be surprised to learn if the team at Apple working on this wasn’t over-represented with men,” he writes in another tweet during his tantrum, “or at least women who haven’t had to worry about credit approval. Easy to go with status quo when it flows for you.”

Ok, hold up. Let’s dissect this for a moment.

“I’d be surprised to learn if the team at Apple working on this wasn’t over-represented with men.” Ok – that’s easy enough to understand. Next.

“I’d be surprised to learn if the team at Apple working on this wasn’t over-represented with…at least women who haven’t had to worry about credit approval.”

Oh! Women like Jennifer Bailey perhaps? You remember Jennifer Bailey, don’t you? She’s the Vice President of Internet Services and Apple Pay at Apple and the woman who took the stage at the keynote to introduce Apple Card.

As a guiding hand in the creation of a new Apple service, is it Hansson’s assertion that Bailey worked to create a product that was specifically designed to minimize and disadvantage women who don’t share her wealth? Did he ask her?

Surely if 350,000 Twitter followers can get you a VIP update to a credit limit, it can get you a quick reply from an executive at a company you’re attacking for sexism. Hell, maybe there was someone else in the room and they heard her say “you know what I want to see? I want to see our logo on a credit card that fucks women who don’t make as much as I do. And let’s make it titanium while we’re at it.” I’ll bet they all laughed and laughed. Someone probably ripped a hundred dollar bill in half just for the gigs.

Has anyone like that come forward?

Wait…now I’m getting confused. I thought I was supposed to be outraged at Apple for having a sexist credit card. But now I’m supposed to be outraged at rich women (and, I think, some dudes) for creating a credit card that underserves not rich women.

Be right back – searching my house for some ibuprofen.

Do bear in mind through all of this, however, that the outrage machine has no time for any of these questions, especially when its throttles have been pushed to the stops and the conductor is stopping only to marvel at his creation and amplify those that are amplifying him. With his fame now stretching into its fourth day and his name now being uttered from the lips of those at Good Morning America, CNBC, Bloomberg, and others, Hansson must be giddy at the thought of turning those 350,000 Twitter followers into 500,000. I wonder what kind of VIP benefits you get at the half-million mark.

So what’s my point? If you’ve read this far and concluded that I’m simply a part of the patriarchy that is also now apparently colluding with rich women in an oddly specific effort to keep not-rich women down, well, you’ve wasted your time. I don’t know any rich women.

My point is that accusations demand evidence. Regardless of their size, regardless of their scale, accusations require evidence to back them up and actual, civil discussion to determine their merits. It could very well be that we discover that there is something screwed up in the Goldman algorithm that is making it issue disproportionately low credit limits to some women. And if that’s the case, then Goldman should be made to apologize and remedy the situation and see that it never happens again. If the act was intentional, then some people should lose their jobs.

But one or two or 30 or 50 or 100 or 500 instances out of $10 billion is not evidence of sexism. It is evidence of a rounding error. Let’s all just calm down a bit, take our fingers off the trigger, and spend some time asking some questions before we take our pitchforks to Cupertino.

Or wait – was that Wall Street? Ah fuck it – wherever we’re supposed to be mad today.