Opinion | The Incredible Shrinking Apple

The Steve Jobs Theater on Apple’s spendy new campus in Cupertino, Calif., is a majestic temple to pomp. An ethereal glass-and-marble cylinder set high on a serene hill, the venue feels like the architectural manifestation of the Apple co-founder’s famous “reality-distortion field.” It is an edifice meant to recall those moments when Mr. Jobs, smirking joyfully, would bound up to the stage, teasingly pull a black shroud off some new invention and instantly alter your picture of the future.

And so it was meant to go once more last week, when Apple invited journalists and celebrities to an event billed as “a Think Different production.”

Some different thinking did seem in order. Since becoming the first trillion-dollar corporation last summer, Apple has battled a souring assessment on Wall Street. The iPhone is the most profitable product in the history of business, but more than a decade after its debut, pretty much everyone on the planet who can afford one already has one, and many customers see little reason to upgrade.

[Farhad Manjoo will answer your questions about this column on Twitter on Thursday at 1:30 p.m. Eastern: @fmanjoo.]

So now, instead of selling better stuff to more people, Apple’s new plan is to sell more stuff to the same people. “Today is going to be a very different kind of event,” said Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, taking the stage.

It was not. From start to finish, Apple’s affair was a brushed-aluminum homage to sameness — a parade of services that start-ups and big rivals had done earlier, polished with an Apple-y sheen of design and marketing. Among other offerings, Apple showed off a service for subscribing to news on your phone and a credit card, and it offered vague details about a still-in-development TV service involving Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey (who are not exactly edgy or up-and-coming).

None of these efforts look terrible. Some, like the news service, might be handy. Yet they are all so trifling and derivative. As the analyst Ben Thompson noted, Apple’s crush of me-too announcements falls far short of Mr. Jobs’s goal of putting “a ding in the universe.” As I watched Apple’s event, I felt the future shrink a little. In its gilded middle age, Apple is turning into something like a digital athleisure brand, stamping out countless upscale accessories for customers who love its one big thing, a company that has lost sight of the universe and is content merely to put a ding in your pocketbook.

In an ordinary time, such an ordinary corporate vision might be fine. But these aren’t ordinary times, and Apple is no ordinary company. Here is a corporation with the resources of an empire, the mass devotion of a religion and the operational capacity of a war machine. Under Mr. Cook, Apple has cannily avoided every minefield in tech and politics over the past couple of years, winning a windfall from President Trump’s tax cut, avoiding getting burned in his trade war — all while enjoying the loyalty of every moneyed hipster and suburbanite on earth.

Yet, all around Apple, the digital world is burning up. Indirectly, Apple’s devices are implicated in the rise of misinformation and distraction, the erosion of privacy and the breakdown of democracy. None of these grand problems is Apple’s fault, but given its centrality to the business, Apple has the capacity and wherewithal to mitigate them. But instead of rising to the moment by pushing a fundamentally new and safer vision of the future, Apple is shrinking from it.

Consider privacy. Mr. Cook is one of the tech industry’s strongest champions of the sanctity of our private information, and Apple has pushed for more stringent privacy regulations — which is just about the least Apple could do. But what if it thought a little bigger? For example, it could directly take on Google and Facebook — the demons who rule our era of surveillance capitalism — by placing far more stringent restrictions on their culture of rampant invasion, or at least removing them from preferential places in the iPhone. (Google will pay Apple an estimated $12 billion in 2019 to act as the default search engine on the iPhone.)

More than restricting the present, Apple could deploy its billions to build a better digital future. In particular, I wonder why Apple isn’t working feverishly to create new privacy-minded versions of social-media services the world needs.

Take messaging, for starters. There is a strong moral case for Apple to turn iMessage, its encrypted messaging app, into an open standard available to anyone, even Android users, who currently lack many privacy-minded messaging apps that aren’t run by an ad company or aren’t friendly with the Chinese government.

There might be a business case, too. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, recently reoriented his company toward messaging. As Will Oremus noted in Slate, the move brings Facebook into direct competition with Apple. This presents an opportunity for Apple to turn a cold war into a hot one; Apple could swiftly undercut Mr. Zuckerberg’s ambition by freeing iMessage and bringing the gift of privacy to the non-Apple world.

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