Apple’s Balancing Act—Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

Originally written for the Syracuse University College of Engineering blog.

A few months ago I read Splinternet by Scott Malcomson. It recounts the early days of the internet and personal computing. One section in particular caught my attention—a quote taken from an abandoned Apple ad campaign:

"There are monster computers lurking in big business and big government that know everything from what motels you’ve stayed at to how much money you have in the bank. But at Apple we’re trying to balance the scales by giving individuals the kind of computer power once reserved for corporations."

This quote is from 1984, and yet it could just as easily be mistaken for something said in 2016 given today’s controversies. I find it provocative for two reasons.

First, three decades later the issues raised in this marketing pitch are still relevant. Today, we struggle to decide how to handle technology that knows our very location, companies that track our browsing behavior via web cookies, and governments that make lethal decisions based on metadata. On one hand, it’s frustrating to see how little progress we’ve made in solving issues like these, but on the other it’s comforting to know that problems like these aren’t new and we’ve survived to this point in spite of them. I’m optimistic that as these issues grow to affect our lives in more significant ways, we’ll accelerate our efforts to resolve them.

Second, look at how much Apple has changed in three decades. Look at how they’ve gone from being the underdog, liberating the masses from the chains of the IBM mainframes only to become a massive conglomerate themselves. Modern Apple has appealing products for sure, but make no mistake that what they offer is a closed ecosystem where the customer is expected to run Apple software on top of Apple hardware. In the pursuit of perfecting the user experience, Apple has created a walled garden that takes control of their products away from the consumer. This is a stark contrast to the Apple that once made the analogy of the personal computer being a bicycle for the mind.

All that said, perhaps the Apple of tomorrow will strike a new balance between these two Apples I’ve mentioned. We’ve seen in recent months Apple’s commitment to resisting the FBI’s request for aid in unlocking encrypted iPhones. We might even see future iterations of the smartphone implement new security features that even Apple won’t be able to bypass. Only time will tell how the second act of this ongoing story will play out, but I’m excited to watch it develop.

About The Author

Carter Yagemann ’15 is a master’s student studying computer science in Syracuse University’s College of Engineering and Computer Science. A research assistant in Professor Kevin Du‘s Android security lab, his interests include mobile security and security education. He explores problems such as how to ensure security and privacy in Android inter-component communication. Yagemann is a student member of ACM and IEEE and competes in cybersecurity competitions with the Information Security Club in Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies (iSchool).