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Apple’s walled garden bites the wallet – but is the world of ‘free’ better?

Check out this startling sampling of Apple user complaints...Rant on. ZDNet published a list of Apple complaints posted on Reddit (which has an Apple forum of more than 800K members) – the list was eye-opening and filled with rage about (storage, connector, power) limitations. Oddly, in the center of the online article was an iPad ad. One commenter compared the Apple customer experience to buying a high-end Audi and discovering that the price did not include tires. Today Apple has 44.3% market share phone ownership – compared to Android’s 54.5% (led by Samsung and LG).   Users feel locked into Apple's ecosystem, but some commenting said it was easier to switch than people believe. Phone replacement cycles are lengthening, due to high prices for new phones coupled with apparent (or fixable) durability of existing devices.

…Meantime, over in the world of ‘Free’ content, volume (even if it's fake) matters most.  The Wall Street Journal notes that free content has produced the low quality mishmash of useless, maybe harmful material that users must wade through to find value – noting $20 billion annual cost of spam, for example, or the deletion of fake account underway at Facebook (583 million of 2.2 billion). Twitter deleted 20 million accounts just a few months ago (out of 383 million).  According to the WSJ, Facebook gets more than 98% of its revenue from advertising, for Twitter and Google, it’s 86%. For advertising-dependent models, the number of users seeing ads matters, even when that number is glutted with bots, fake accounts, and hidden ads, not to mention moronic posts. Consider the tiny percent of revenue that is ad-based for Microsoft or Amazon. And then there's Apple, which nickels and dimes the customer over cords and keyboards.

Mull over these two worlds – and the Netflix subscription model starts to appeal.  Netflix, which charges users monthly for a subscription, appears (gasp) to be making money offering content that people want enough to pay for it.  And Apple trumpets the 'privacy' it offers by not selling the data of you. But use Apple’s Safari browser from an iPhone or tablet, and go to websites that are, uh, ad-rich, like USA Today – whoa, look at all those ads. Tormented by an advertising-based ‘Free’ model, you install AdBlock Plus, a browser extension that blocks ads, sort of.  Check out the tiny type wording at the bottom of that screen, though. "We are able to keep our open source product free by charging large entities a fee for white-listing their services." Like Google.

What is the problem -- and can it be fixed or mitigated by charging a fee for access? Is the problem for consumers just that the ads are shown? Or that the entire online ad industry is built to leverage sophisticated technology to aggregate user attention and sell advertising?  The problem for businesses is that they must participate in this circus, leading to your viewing habits being evaluated and sold to marketers in order to show the ads. Yet the recipient of content about your usage is not known to you -- the user. And if 'you' are really a bot to be discovered and crushed, or 'your' access is from a fake account, what is the revenue model for a Twitter or Facebook, really? As noted in the Wall Street Journal, one day we will internalize the meaning of the fact that ‘Free’ really isn’t and that[ we will want to pay to be freed from the mess that is 'Free'. Rant off.


Laurie, I hope you'll keep taking about this. I increasingly wonder which "gift" to the next generation is worse: climate change or the post-truth era. I hope most people have already learned "if the service is free, you are the product.“ The next lesson may be, "if the information is free, influencing you is the goal."

Since many of us have given in and allowed FAANG to manage our online identity, it would be an interesting value proposition for them to develop a subscription model that might both offer greater protection and prevent inadvertent disclosure and disruption of our personal information.  Microsoft and Google, in particular, have strong and scalable identity models.   

Where this intersects with technology for older adults and people with disabilities is technology-mediated services demand strong identity services to support them and ensure the security and privacy of the individuals using them.  Subscription-based strong identity potentially offers that service.