James Ashton: Apple's big enough to admit we use phones too muchComments Off on James Ashton: Apple's big enough to admit we use phones too much
IMAGINE if Ivan Menezes stood up in front of an audience and confessed to a drink problem. The chief executive of global liquor giant Diageo, whose favourite tipple is incidentally Johnnie Walker black label with ice and soda, would send tremors through his industry, which has spent 15 years promoting responsible consumption.
It is not likely to happen. Menezes comes across as a moderate drinker whose mantra is that his Guinness-to-Gordon’s empire can prosper if consumers drink better, not more. That means trading up to premium brands rather than bulk buying own-label vodka.
Yet the Apple supremo Tim Cook did something similar at his developer conference in California in June. After tracking data of his mobile phone usage, Cook admitted he was spending more time than he should on his handset.
It was a watershed moment. For the first time, the technology industry that within a decade has transformed the way we live was suggesting less screen time may be a good thing. Consumers are loathe to admit it, but the dopamine hits of social media — every ping and flash that make us pick up our phone dozens of times an hour — have the addictive hallmarks of nicotine. Imagine how long it has taken Silicon Valley to get to grips with that reality.
This was not quite Apple’s Gerald Ratner moment. Cook was not declaiming his iPhone as “total crap”, merely that usage should be controlled somehow, with the aid of new time-limit settings for some apps and hidden notifications. So seductive is reaching for the modern smartphone, it is no surprise that its Nokia antecedent was known for its “candy-bar” shape.
It is a moment of clarity that comes for many consumer industries, egged on by public pressure and regulatory threat. Soft-drinks makers chose to reduce sugar instead of facing lower sales that a tax might bring.
A couple of years ago the boss of Philip Morris International explained to me his hope that the Marlboro giant would stop selling cigarettes in his lifetime. In its place, he is marketing supposedly safer heat-not-burn gadgets. The tobacco industry has left it late to go down the responsible route. It is more than two decades since firms conceded that smoking causes lung cancer and emphysema and spent billions settling legal claims. With shares in Big Tobacco down sharply this year, investors are betting that future growth will be stubbed out.
The technology sector is a long way from the threat of extinction. One reason is it is still remarkably young and finding its way. Consider it against the motor industry. In the transition from horse-drawn to horse-powered, speed limits were abolished completely. The 70 miles per hour upper limit for motorway drivers was made permanent in 1967 and, amazing to think now, wearing rear seat belts only became compulsory in 1991.
Metering or monitoring web access sounds like a throwback to the dial-up connections of the 1990s. Consumers have grown accustomed to all-you-can-eat, always-on technology. The tech giants say they are a liberal force for good. Yet there are obvious dangers.
Technology investor Saul Klein, whose LocalGlobe fund has backed start-ups including Transferwise and Improbable, likens giving a child a smartphone to throwing the car keys to someone who has not taken driving lessons. Efforts to regulate Big Tech can be clunky and slow.
However, the European Union’s competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager has not been deterred, as her recent $5 billion fine for Google owner Alphabet for abuse of the dominance of its Android mobile operating system shows.
The Silicon Valley giants are programmed to seek forgiveness, not permission. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has learnt to say sorry in many different ways. Sometimes he even sounds convincing.
Apple’s move is a qualified one. Activist investors called on it to help parents restrict their children’s iPhone access and look into the effects of heavy screen usage. And Cook believes it is not his devices that are addictive, but maybe the apps they carry.
All the same, something changes in September when these new controls are meant to become widely available. It is the sign of a powerful industry growing up and showing humility. It is something that eventually comes to all wildly successful corporations: with giant revenues comes giant responsibility.