By multiple standards, the company is doing better than even an optimist would have predicted in 2011. But it still has a Steve Jobs-shaped hole in it.
Fans use smartphones to photograph a makeshift shrine in London after Steve Jobs’s death from pancreatic cancer at the age of 56 on October 5, 2011. [
Ten years ago today, I happened to be attending a trade show in Tokyo when a tech journalist friend back in California phoned to ask if I’d heard Steve Jobs had died. I hadn’t: Apple had justmade the sad announcement and it hadn’t yet overtaken Twitter, news sites, and—it would soon seem—every other form of media.
Rather than continuing with my trip as planned, I spent the rest of it writing multiple pieces about Apple’s cofounder and his impact on his company and the world. Throughout, I did my best to avoid coming to any snap judgments about what an Apple without Jobs would look like. Even a year after Jobs’s death, I marked its anniversary by arguing that it was too soon to judge how Apple was faring, in part because the company was still releasing products that he’d had a hand in shaping.
Nine years after that, I have no excuses. Tim Cook has been Apple’s CEO for more than a fifth of the company’s history. Comparing his Apple to Steve Jobs’s legacy remains tricky, since we’ll never know how Jobs would have handled the same decisions Cook has made. But since it’s no longer premature to ponder such matters, I’m going to give it a shot. And I’m going to divide my musings into four broad categories.
But even Altucher didn’t talk about Apple becoming the first company to reach a valuation of $2 trillion, a feat it achieved less than nine years after Jobs’s death. Apple is now worth more than six times what it was on October 5, 2011. As the smartphone market matured, Cook turned out to be one of the best CEOs in the history of business, adroitly keeping Apple growing through strategies such as bolstering its services portfolio.
From a Wall Street perspective, the unanswerable question that feels most pertinent is not “would Apple have been more successful if Steve Jobs was still CEO?” Instead, it’s more like “would an Apple run by Steve Jobs have matched Tim Cook’s history-making financial results?”
The next big thing(s)
For the first year or two of Tim Cook’s tenure as Apple CEO, some pundits helpfully explained that Jobs had unveiled an epoch-shifting gadget every couple of years—and that Cook would be a failure if he didn’t continue that pace. As I wrote back then, this was silly. For one thing, even Jobs didn’t change history with anything like the frequency that people thought he did. For another, Cook deserved more than two years to prove how much vision Apple would have under his leadership.
Enough time has passed that it’s now fair to compare Cook’s biggest products to Jobs landmarks such as the Apple II, Mac, iPod, iTunes, iPhone, and iPad. Apples biggest all-new product since 2011 has unquestionably been the Apple Watch, which is now worn by 100 million people, including a third of iPhone users in the U.S. Judged purely as a revenue generator, the smartwatch deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Jobs’s signature products: It’s a bigger business than the iPod was at its height.
The other obvious megahit of the Cook years are AirPods, which defined the modern wireless-earbud category and still lead it; they’re as iconic as wired iPod earbuds once were—and vastly more profitable for Apple.
Any Apple rival would salivate at the prospect of creating a business as successful as the Apple Watch and AirPods have been. Still, neither is culturally transformative in the way that Jobs’s biggest successes were. Rather than changing everything about our relationship with technology in one or two fell swoops, the Apple Watch has done well because Apple has patiently took something that initially felt like a tiny computer for your wrist and refocused it on fitness and health. Meanwhile, AirPods, delightful though they are, are ultimately an accessory, at least for the time being. And there’s a limit to how much an accessory can reshape human life.
But if Apple hasn’t managed to shift any epochs lately, that’s understandable. Neither has anyone else in the consumer electronics business:
On the smartphone front, pricey folding phones from Samsung and Microsoft cater to a niche that doesn’t feel like it’s about to explode.
Amazon’s Alexa has done more than Apple’s Siri to propel AI-infused voice interfaces to prominence, but it hasn’t rendered smartphones any less important.
Thanks to Facebook’s Oculus, virtual reality has made great strides, but a heck of a lot of people still haven’t strapped on a headset even once.
On the consumer hardware front, augmented reality has inspired some notoriousflops; its successes, such as Pokémon Go and Google Lens, have gained traction by leveraging smartphones rather than replacing them.
From Facebook and Twitter to TikTok, social media has changed the world over the past decade, but it feels less like an invention than a virus that got out of control.
You might make the case that Elon Musk’s Tesla has had an Apple-like impact on the automotive industry, but the electrification of passenger vehicles remains a story in progress.
It’s even clearer in retrospect than it was during Jobs’s life that it might be impossible to top the iPhone by coming up with an even more popular, profitable gizmo. Had Jobs gotten another decade as Apple CEO, he might have chosen to pour most of the company’s energy into the evolution and expansion of the iPhone and iPad—just as Cook’s Apple has done. Incremental improvements to existing products, after all, were just as key to Jobs’s success as the great leaps forward.
One other thing: All evidence suggests that Apple hasn’t given up on trying to reinvent additional product categories. It’s just tackling ones that are hyper-ambitious even by its own standards—such as VR/AR headsets and cars—and is happy to chip away in private rather than hype stuff that won’t appear for years. Which means that it’s still too early to declare that we’ve seen the last history-making new Apple product.
The little things
Steve Jobs was not an inventor so much as an editor. None of the products he’s remembered for were the first in their category, and every one of them bulged with work done by people who had skills that Jobs did not possess. But he had a near-superhuman ability to know what to put into a product and what to leave out. He could make the seams between hardware and software nearly vanish. He made hard decisions that were often questioned, but almost always prescient and—eventually—widely imitated.
In all these cases, I’m not going to say “Steve Jobs would never have allowed that,” because . . . well, he might have. His own mistakes wereoftendoozies. But present-day Apple does feel like it’s lost the final polish that Jobs gave almost everything.
We didn’t just lose Steve Jobs the business executive, strategic thinker, and product polisher 10 years ago. We lost the guy who may have been the single most memorable personality the consumer-tech business ever produced:
The Steve Jobs who was a direct link to the roots of the PC industry, having cofounded Apple in 1976 at age 21 with Steve Wozniak. (Yes, Jobs and Woz really did sell a VW van and HP calculator, respectively, to fund their startup.)
When most of us envision Jobs, what we see is the man onstage at the product presentations so inextricably associated with him that they were known as “Stevenotes.” Even if you steadfastly refused to get sucked into his reality distortion field, these demos were remarkably compelling. It wasn’t just because he was one of the best explainers the tech industry has ever seen, or even because he occasionally did reveal stuff that blew your socks off. Up there on stage—often by himself—he came off as human, even vulnerable, in a way that few business executives would choose to make themselves. That was true all along, and even more so in his final years as each appearance was an opportunity for public speculation about his health.
For a few years after Jobs’s death, Apple product launches were overseen by Cook and other longtime Jobs associates, and felt like Stevenotes that had been stripped of their most important ingredient. As people noted with increasing frequency that the same handful of white guys represented Apple at every event, the company began to switch things up, calling on a larger, more diverse group of Apple employees to divvy up the presenting. With the COVID-19 pandemic and the shift to virtual events, the company ventured even further away from the Stevenote approach. Even if it returns to live product launches in 2022, it seems likely that high-production-value canned videos will play a larger part than when almost everything that mattered was happening in front of a live audience.
Steve Jobs is in no danger of being forgotten. But more and more, when Apple does things that he wouldn’t have, it’s not a sign that the company has lost its way. Instead, it’s evidence that Apple is still restlessly looking forward rather than obsessing over its past. And what could be more Steve Jobs-like than that?
Clarification, Sept. 8, 2021: A previous version of this story caused unintended confusion about the extent to which WhatsApp examines its users’ messages and whether it breaks the encryption that keeps the exchanges secret. We’ve altered language in the story to make clear that the company examines only messages from threads that have been reported by users as possibly abusive. It does not break end-to-end encryption.
When Mark Zuckerberg unveiled a new “privacy-focused vision” for Facebook in March 2019, he cited the company’s global messaging service, WhatsApp, as a model. Acknowledging that “we don’t currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protective services,” the Facebook CEO wrote that “I believe the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure and their messages and content won’t stick around forever. This is the future I hope we will help bring about. We plan to build this the way we’ve developed WhatsApp.”
Zuckerberg’s vision centered on WhatsApp’s signature feature, which he said the company was planning to apply to Instagram and Facebook Messenger: end-to-end encryption, which converts all messages into an unreadable format that is only unlocked when they reach their intended destinations. WhatsApp messages are so secure, he said, that nobody else — not even the company — can read a word. As Zuckerberg had put it earlier, in testimony to the U.S. Senate in 2018, “We don’t see any of the content in WhatsApp.”
WhatsApp emphasizes this point so consistently that a flag with a similar assurance automatically appears on-screen before users send messages: “No one outside of this chat, not even WhatsApp, can read or listen to them.”
Given those sweeping assurances, you might be surprised to learn that WhatsApp has more than 1,000 contract workers filling floors of office buildings in Austin, Texas, Dublin and Singapore. Seated at computers in pods organized by work assignments, these hourly workers use special Facebook software to sift through millions of private messages, images and videos. They pass judgment on whatever flashes on their screen — claims of everything from fraud or spam to child porn and potential terrorist plotting — typically in less than a minute.
The workers have access to only a subset of WhatsApp messages — those flagged by users and automatically forwarded to the company as possibly abusive. The review is one element in a broader monitoring operation in which the company also reviews material that is not encrypted, including data about the sender and their account.
Policing users while assuring them that their privacy is sacrosanct makes for an awkward mission at WhatsApp. A 49-slide internal company marketing presentation from December, obtained by ProPublica, emphasizes the “fierce” promotion of WhatsApp’s “privacy narrative.” It compares its “brand character” to “the Immigrant Mother” and displays a photo of Malala Yousafzai, who survived a shooting by the Taliban and became a Nobel Peace Prize winner, in a slide titled “Brand tone parameters.” The presentation does not mention the company’s content moderation efforts.
WhatsApp’s director of communications, Carl Woog, acknowledged that teams of contractors in Austin and elsewhere review WhatsApp messages to identify and remove “the worst” abusers. But Woog told ProPublica that the company does not consider this work to be content moderation, saying: “We actually don’t typically use the term for WhatsApp.” The company declined to make executives available for interviews for this article, but responded to questions with written comments. “WhatsApp is a lifeline for millions of people around the world,” the company said. “The decisions we make around how we build our app are focused around the privacy of our users, maintaining a high degree of reliability and preventing abuse.”
WhatsApp’s denial that it moderates content is noticeably different from what Facebook Inc. says about WhatsApp’s corporate siblings, Instagram and Facebook. The company has said that some 15,000 moderators examine content on Facebook and Instagram, neither of which is encrypted. It releases quarterly transparency reports that detail how many accounts Facebook and Instagram have “actioned” for various categories of abusive content. There is no such report for WhatsApp.
Deploying an army of content reviewers is just one of the ways that Facebook Inc. has compromised the privacy of WhatsApp users. Together, the company’s actions have left WhatsApp — the largest messaging app in the world, with two billion users — far less private than its users likely understand or expect. A ProPublica investigation, drawing on data, documents and dozens of interviews with current and former employees and contractors, reveals how, since purchasing WhatsApp in 2014, Facebook has quietly undermined its sweeping security assurances in multiple ways. (Twoarticles this summer noted the existence of WhatsApp’s moderators but focused on their working conditions and pay rather than their effect on users’ privacy. This article is the first to reveal the details and extent of the company’s ability to scrutinize messages and user data — and to examine what the company does with that information.)
Many of the assertions by content moderators working for WhatsApp are echoed by a confidential whistleblower complaint filed last year with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The complaint, which ProPublica obtained, details WhatsApp’s extensive use of outside contractors, artificial intelligence systems and account information to examine user messages, images and videos. It alleges that the company’s claims of protecting users’ privacy are false. “We haven’t seen this complaint,” the company spokesperson said. The SEC has taken no public action on it; an agency spokesperson declined to comment.
Facebook Inc. has also downplayed how much data it collects from WhatsApp users, what it does with it and how much it shares with law enforcement authorities. For example, WhatsApp shares metadata, unencrypted records that can reveal a lot about a user’s activity, with law enforcement agencies such as the Department of Justice. Some rivals, such as Signal, intentionally gather much less metadata to avoid incursions on its users’ privacy, and thus share far less with law enforcement. (“WhatsApp responds to valid legal requests,” the company spokesperson said, “including orders that require us to provide on a real-time going forward basis who a specific person is messaging.”)
WhatsApp user data, ProPublica has learned, helped prosecutors build a high-profile case against a Treasury Department employee who leaked confidential documents to BuzzFeed News that exposed how dirty money flows through U.S. banks.
Like other social media and communications platforms, WhatsApp is caught between users who expect privacy and law enforcement entities that effectively demand the opposite: that WhatsApp turn over information that will help combat crime and online abuse. WhatsApp has responded to this dilemma by asserting that it’s no dilemma at all. “I think we absolutely can have security and safety for people through end-to-end encryption and work with law enforcement to solve crimes,” said Will Cathcart, whose title is Head of WhatsApp, in a YouTube interview with an Australian think tank in July.
The tension between privacy and disseminating information to law enforcement is exacerbated by a second pressure: Facebook’s need to make money from WhatsApp. Since paying $22 billion to buy WhatsApp in 2014, Facebook has been trying to figure out how to generate profits from a service that doesn’t charge its users a penny.
WhatsApp’s increasingly aggressive business plan is focused on charging companies for an array of services — letting users make payments via WhatsApp and managing customer service chats — that offer convenience but fewer privacy protections. The result is a confusing two-tiered privacy system within the same app where the protections of end-to-end encryption are further eroded when WhatsApp users employ the service to communicate with businesses.
The company’s December marketing presentation captures WhatsApp’s diverging imperatives. It states that “privacy will remain important.” But it also conveys what seems to be a more urgent mission: the need to “open the aperture of the brand to encompass our future business objectives.”
In many ways, the experience of being a content moderator for WhatsApp in Austin is identical to being a moderator for Facebook or Instagram, according to interviews with 29 current and former moderators. Mostly in their 20s and 30s, many with past experience as store clerks, grocery checkers and baristas, the moderators are hired and employed by Accenture, a huge corporate contractor that works for Facebook and other Fortune 500 behemoths.
The job listings advertise “Content Review” positions and make no mention of Facebook or WhatsApp. Employment documents list the workers’ initial title as “content moderation associate.” Pay starts around $16.50 an hour. Moderators are instructed to tell anyone who asks that they work for Accenture, and are required to sign sweeping non-disclosure agreements. Citing the NDAs, almost all the current and former moderators interviewed by ProPublica insisted on anonymity. (An Accenture spokesperson declined comment, referring all questions about content moderation to WhatsApp.)
When the WhatsApp team was assembled in Austin in 2019, Facebook moderators already occupied the fourth floor of an office tower on Sixth Street, adjacent to the city’s famous bar-and-music scene. The WhatsApp team was installed on the floor above, with new glass-enclosed work pods and nicer bathrooms that sparked a tinge of envy in a few members of the Facebook team. Most of the WhatsApp team scattered to work from home during the pandemic. Whether in the office or at home, they spend their days in front of screens, using a Facebook software tool to examine a stream of “tickets,” organized by subject into “reactive” and “proactive” queues.
Collectively, the workers scrutinize millions of pieces of WhatsApp content each week. Each reviewer handles upwards of 600 tickets a day, which gives them less than a minute per ticket. WhatsApp declined to reveal how many contract workers are employed for content review, but a partial staffing list reviewed by ProPublica suggests that, at Accenture alone, it’s more than 1,000. WhatsApp moderators, like their Facebook and Instagram counterparts, are expected to meet performance metrics for speed and accuracy, which are audited by Accenture.
Their jobs differ in other ways. Because WhatsApp’s content is encrypted, artificial intelligence systems can’t automatically scan all chats, images and videos, as they do on Facebook and Instagram. Instead, WhatsApp reviewers gain access to private content when users hit the “report” button on the app, identifying a message as allegedly violating the platform’s terms of service. This forwards five messages — the allegedly offending one along with the four previous ones in the exchange, including any images or videos — to WhatsApp in unscrambled form, according to former WhatsApp engineers and moderators. Automated systems then feed these tickets into “reactive” queues for contract workers to assess.
Artificial intelligence initiates a second set of queues — so-called proactive ones — by scanning unencrypted data that WhatsApp collects about its users and comparing it against suspicious account information and messaging patterns (a new account rapidly sending out a high volume of chats is evidence of spam), as well as terms and images that have previously been deemed abusive. The unencrypted data available for scrutiny is extensive. It includes the names and profile images of a user’s WhatsApp groups as well as their phone number, profile photo, status message, phone battery level, language and time zone, unique mobile phone ID and IP address, wireless signal strength and phone operating system, as a list of their electronic devices, any related Facebook and Instagram accounts, the last time they used the app and any previous history of violations.
The WhatsApp reviewers have three choices when presented with a ticket for either type of queue: Do nothing, place the user on “watch” for further scrutiny, or ban the account. (Facebook and Instagram content moderators have more options, including removing individual postings. It’s that distinction — the fact that WhatsApp reviewers can’t delete individual items — that the company cites as its basis for asserting that WhatsApp reviewers are not “content moderators.”)
WhatsApp moderators must make subjective, sensitive and subtle judgments, interviews and documents examined by ProPublica show. They examine a wide range of categories, including “Spam Report,” “Civic Bad Actor” (political hate speech and disinformation), “Terrorism Global Credible Threat,” “CEI” (child exploitative imagery) and “CP” (child pornography). Another set of categories addresses the messaging and conduct of millions of small and large businesses that use WhatsApp to chat with customers and sell their wares. These queues have such titles as “business impersonation prevalence,” “commerce policy probable violators” and “business verification.”
Moderators say the guidance they get from WhatsApp and Accenture relies on standards that can be simultaneously arcane and disturbingly graphic. Decisions about abusive sexual imagery, for example, can rest on an assessment of whether a naked child in an image appears adolescent or prepubescent, based on comparison of hip bones and pubic hair to a medical index chart. One reviewer recalled a grainy video in a political-speech queue that depicted a machete-wielding man holding up what appeared to be a severed head: “We had to watch and say, ‘Is this a real dead body or a fake dead body?’”
In late 2020, moderators were informed of a new queue for alleged “sextortion.” It was defined in an explanatory memo as “a form of sexual exploitation where people are blackmailed with a nude image of themselves which have been shared by them or someone else on the Internet.” The memo said workers would review messages reported by users that “include predefined keywords typically used in sextortion/blackmail messages.”
WhatsApp’s review system is hampered by impediments, including buggy language translation. The service has users in 180 countries, with the vast majority located outside the U.S. Even though Accenture hires workers who speak a variety of languages, for messages in some languages there’s often no native speaker on site to assess abuse complaints. That means using Facebook’s language-translation tool, which reviewers said could be so inaccurate that it sometimes labeled messages in Arabic as being in Spanish. The tool also offered little guidance on local slang, political context or sexual innuendo. “In the three years I’ve been there,” one moderator said, “it’s always been horrible.”
The process can be rife with errors and misunderstandings. Companies have been flagged for offering weapons for sale when they’re selling straight shaving razors. Bras can be sold, but if the marketing language registers as “adult,” the seller can be labeled a forbidden “sexually oriented business.” And a flawed translation tool set off an alarm when it detected kids for sale and slaughter, which, upon closer scrutiny, turned out to involve young goats intended to be cooked and eaten in halal meals.
The system is also undercut by the human failings of the people who instigate reports. Complaints are frequently filed to punish, harass or prank someone, according to moderators. In messages from Brazil and Mexico, one moderator explained, “we had a couple of months where AI was banning groups left and right because people were messing with their friends by changing their group names” and then reporting them. “At the worst of it, we were probably getting tens of thousands of those. They figured out some words the algorithm did not like.”
Other reports fail to meet WhatsApp standards for an account ban. “Most of it is not violating,” one of the moderators said. “It’s content that is already on the internet, and it’s just people trying to mess with users.” Still, each case can reveal up to five unencrypted messages, which are then examined by moderators.
The judgment of WhatsApp’s AI is less than perfect, moderators say. “There were a lot of innocent photos on there that were not allowed to be on there,” said Carlos Sauceda, who left Accenture last year after nine months. “It might have been a photo of a child taking a bath, and there was nothing wrong with it.” As another WhatsApp moderator put it, “A lot of the time, the artificial intelligence is not that intelligent.”
Facebook’s written guidance to WhatsApp moderators acknowledges many problems, noting “we have made mistakes and our policies have been weaponized by bad actors to get good actors banned. When users write inquiries pertaining to abusive matters like these, it is up to WhatsApp to respond and act (if necessary) accordingly in a timely and pleasant manner.” Of course, if a user appeals a ban that was prompted by a user report, according to one moderator, it entails having a second moderator examine the user’s content.
In public statements and on the company’s websites, Facebook Inc. is noticeably vague about WhatsApp’s monitoring process. The company does not provide a regular accounting of how WhatsApp polices the platform. WhatsApp’s FAQ page and online complaint form note that it will receive “the most recent messages” from a user who has been flagged. They do not, however, disclose how many unencrypted messages are revealed when a report is filed, or that those messages are examined by outside contractors. (WhatsApp told ProPublica it limits that disclosure to keep violators from “gaming” the system.)
By contrast, both Facebook and Instagram post lengthy “Community Standards” documents detailing the criteria its moderators use to police content, along with articles and videos about “the unrecognized heroes who keep Facebook safe” and announcements on new content-review sites. Facebook’s transparency reports detail how many pieces of content are “actioned” for each type of violation. WhatsApp is not included in this report.
When dealing with legislators, Facebook Inc. officials also offer few details — but are eager to assure them that they don’t let encryption stand in the way of protecting users from images of child sexual abuse and exploitation. For example, when members of the Senate Judiciary Committee grilled Facebook about the impact of encrypting its platforms, the company, in written follow-up questions in Jan. 2020, cited WhatsApp in boasting that it would remain responsive to law enforcement. “Even within an encrypted system,” one response noted, “we will still be able to respond to lawful requests for metadata, including potentially critical location or account information… We already have an encrypted messaging service, WhatsApp, that — in contrast to some other encrypted services — provides a simple way for people to report abuse or safety concerns.”
Sure enough, WhatsApp reported 400,000 instances of possible child-exploitation imagery to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 2020, according to its head, Cathcart. That was ten times as many as in 2019. “We are by far the industry leaders in finding and detecting that behavior in an end-to-end encrypted service,” he said.
During his YouTube interview with the Australian think tank, Cathcart also described WhatsApp’s reliance on user reporting and its AI systems’ ability to examine account information that isn’t subject to encryption. Asked how many staffers WhatsApp employed to investigate abuse complaints from an app with more than two billion users, Cathcart didn’t mention content moderators or their access to encrypted content. “There’s a lot of people across Facebook who help with WhatsApp,” he explained. “If you look at people who work full time on WhatsApp, it’s above a thousand. I won’t get into the full breakdown of customer service, user reports, engineering, etc. But it’s a lot of that.”
In written responses for this article, the company spokesperson said: “We build WhatsApp in a manner that limits the data we collect while providing us tools to prevent spam, investigate threats, and ban those engaged in abuse, including based on user reports we receive. This work takes extraordinary effort from security experts and a valued trust and safety team that works tirelessly to help provide the world with private communication.” The spokesperson noted that WhatsApp has released new privacy features, including “more controls about how people’s messages can disappear” or be viewed only once. He added, “Based on the feedback we’ve received from users, we’re confident people understand when they make reports to WhatsApp we receive the content they send us.”
Since the moment Facebook announced plans to buy WhatsApp in 2014, observers wondered how the service, known for its fervent commitment to privacy, would fare inside a corporation known for the opposite. Zuckerberg had become one of the wealthiest people on the planet by using a “surveillance capitalism” approach: collecting and exploiting reams of user data to sell targeted digital ads. Facebook’s relentless pursuit of growth and profits has generated a series of privacy scandals in which it was accused of deceiving customers and regulators.
By contrast, WhatsApp knew little about its users apart from their phone numbers and shared none of that information with third parties. WhatsApp ran no ads, and its co-founders, Jan Koum and Brian Acton, both former Yahoo engineers, were hostile to them. “At every company that sells ads,” they wrote in 2012, “a significant portion of their engineering team spends their day tuning data mining, writing better code to collect all your personal data, upgrading the servers that hold all the data and making sure it’s all being logged and collated and sliced and packed and shipped out,” adding: “Remember, when advertising is involved you the user are the product.” At WhatsApp, they noted, “your data isn’t even in the picture. We are simply not interested in any of it.”
Zuckerberg publicly vowed in a 2014 keynote speech that he would keep WhatsApp “exactly the same.” He declared, “We are absolutely not going to change plans around WhatsApp and the way it uses user data. WhatsApp is going to operate completely autonomously.”
In April 2016, WhatsApp completed its long-planned adoption of end-to-end encryption, which helped establish the app as a prized communications platform in 180 countries, including many where text messages and phone calls are cost-prohibitive. International dissidents, whistleblowers and journalists also turned to WhatsApp to escape government eavesdropping.
Four months later, however, WhatsApp disclosed it would begin sharing user data with Facebook — precisely what Zuckerberg had said would not happen — a move that cleared the way for an array of future revenue-generating plans. The new WhatsApp terms of service said the app would share information such as users’ phone numbers, profile photos, status messages and IP addresses for the purposes of ad targeting, fighting spam and abuse and gathering metrics. “By connecting your phone number with Facebook’s systems,” WhatsApp explained, “Facebook can offer better friend suggestions and show you more relevant ads if you have an account with them.”
Such actions were increasingly bringing Facebook into the crosshairs of regulators. In May 2017, European Union antitrust regulators fined the company 110 million euros (about $122 million) for falsely claiming three years earlier that it would be impossible to link the user information between WhatsApp and the Facebook family of apps. The EU concluded that Facebook had “intentionally or negligently” deceived regulators. Facebook insisted its false statements in 2014 were not intentional, but didn’t contest the fine.
By the spring of 2018, the WhatsApp co-founders, now both billionaires, were gone. Acton, in what he later described as an act of “penance” for the “crime” of selling WhatsApp to Facebook, gave $50 million to a foundation backing Signal, a free encrypted messaging app that would emerge as a WhatsApp rival. (Acton’s donor-advised fund has also given money to ProPublica.)
Meanwhile, Facebook was under fire for its security and privacy failures as never before. The pressure culminated in a landmark $5 billion fine by the Federal Trade Commission in July 2019 for violating a previous agreement to protect user privacy. The fine was almost 20 times greater than any previous privacy-related penalty, according to the FTC, and Facebook’s transgressions included “deceiving users about their ability to control the privacy of their personal information.”
The FTC announced that it was ordering Facebook to take steps to protect privacy going forward, including for WhatsApp users: “As part of Facebook’s order-mandated privacy program, which covers WhatsApp and Instagram, Facebook must conduct a privacy review of every new or modified product, service, or practice before it is implemented, and document its decisions about user privacy.” Compliance officers would be required to generate a “quarterly privacy review report” and share it with the company and, upon request, the FTC.
Facebook agreed to the FTC’s fine and order. Indeed, the negotiations for that agreement were the backdrop, just four months before that, for Zuckerberg’s announcement of his new commitment to privacy.
By that point, WhatsApp had begun using Accenture and other outside contractors to hire hundreds of content reviewers. But the company was eager not to step on its larger privacy message — or spook its global user base. It said nothing publicly about its hiring of contractors to review content.
Even as Zuckerberg was touting Facebook Inc.’s new commitment to privacy in 2019, he didn’t mention that his company was apparently sharing more of its WhatsApp users’ metadata than ever with the parent company — and with law enforcement.
To the lay ear, the term “metadata” can sound abstract, a word that evokes the intersection of literary criticism and statistics. To use an old, pre-digital analogy, metadata is the equivalent of what’s written on the outside of an envelope — the names and addresses of the sender and recipient and the postmark reflecting where and when it was mailed — while the “content” is what’s written on the letter sealed inside the envelope. So it is with WhatsApp messages: The content is protected, but the envelope reveals a multitude of telling details (as noted: time stamps, phone numbers and much more).
Those in the information and intelligence fields understand how crucial this information can be. It was metadata, after all, that the National Security Agency was gathering about millions of Americans not suspected of a crime, prompting a global outcry when it was exposed in 2013 by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. “Metadata absolutely tells you everything about somebody’s life,” former NSA general counsel Stewart Baker once said. “If you have enough metadata, you don’t really need content.” In a symposium at Johns Hopkins University in 2014, Gen. Michael Hayden, former director of both the CIA and NSA, went even further: “We kill people based on metadata.”
U.S. law enforcement has used WhatsApp metadata to help put people in jail. ProPublica found more than a dozen instances in which the Justice Department sought court orders for the platform’s metadata since 2017. These represent a fraction of overall requests, known as pen register orders (a phrase borrowed from the technology used to track numbers dialed by landline telephones), as many more are kept from public view by court order. U.S. government requests for data on outgoing and incoming messages from all Facebook platforms increased by 276% from the first half of 2017 to the second half of 2020, according to Facebook Inc. statistics (which don’t break out the numbers by platform). The company’s rate of handing over at least some data in response to such requests has risen from 84% to 95% during that period.
It’s not clear exactly what government investigators have been able to gather from WhatsApp, as the results of those orders, too, are often kept from public view. Internally, WhatsApp calls such requests for information about users “prospective message pairs,” or PMPs. These provide data on a user’s messaging patterns in response to requests from U.S. law enforcement agencies, as well as those in at least three other countries — the United Kingdom, Brazil and India — according to a person familiar with the matter who shared this information on condition of anonymity. Law enforcement requests from other countries might only receive basic subscriber profile information.
WhatsApp metadata was pivotal in the arrest and conviction of Natalie “May” Edwards, a former Treasury Department official with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, for leaking confidential banking reports about suspicious transactions to BuzzFeed News. The FBI’s criminal complaint detailed hundreds of messages between Edwards and a BuzzFeed reporter using an “encrypted application,” which interviews and court records confirmed was WhatsApp. “On or about August 1, 2018, within approximately six hours of the Edwards pen becoming operative — and the day after the July 2018 Buzzfeed article was published — the Edwards cellphone exchanged approximately 70 messages via the encrypted application with the Reporter-1 cellphone during an approximately 20-minute time span between 12:33 a.m. and 12:54 a.m.,” FBI Special Agent Emily Eckstut wrote in her October 2018 complaint. Edwards and the reporter used WhatsApp because Edwards believed the platform to be secure, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Edwards was sentenced on June 3 to six months in prison after pleading guilty to a conspiracy charge and reported to prison last week. Edwards’ attorney declined to comment, as did representatives from the FBI and the Justice Department.
WhatsApp has for years downplayed how much unencrypted information it shares with law enforcement, largely limiting mentions of the practice to boilerplate language buried deep in its terms of service. It does not routinely keep permanent logs of who users are communicating with and how often, but company officials confirmed they do turn on such tracking at their own discretion — even for internal Facebook leak investigations — or in response to law enforcement requests. The company declined to tell ProPublica how frequently it does so.
The privacy page for WhatsApp assures users that they have total control over their own metadata. It says users can “decide if only contacts, everyone, or nobody can see your profile photo” or when they last opened their status updates or when they last opened the app. Regardless of the settings a user chooses, WhatsApp collects and analyzes all of that data — a fact not mentioned anywhere on the page.
The conflict between privacy and security on encrypted platforms seems to be only intensifying. Law enforcement and child safety advocates have urged Zuckerberg to abandon his plan to encrypt all of Facebook’s messaging platforms. In June 2020, three Republican senators introduced the “Lawful Access to Encrypted Data Act,” which would require tech companies to assist in providing access to even encrypted content in response to law enforcement warrants. For its part, WhatsApp recently sued the Indian government to block its requirement that encrypted apps provide “traceability” — a method to identify the sender of any message deemed relevant to law enforcement. WhatsApp has fought similar demands in other countries.
Other encrypted platforms take a vastly different approach to monitoring their users than WhatsApp. Signal employs no content moderators, collects far less user and group data, allows no cloud backups and generally rejects the notion that it should be policing user activities. It submits no child exploitation reports to NCMEC.
Apple has touted its commitment to privacy as a selling point. Its iMessage system displays a “report” button only to alert the company to suspected spam, and the company has made just a few hundred annual reports to NCMEC, all of them originating from scanning outgoing email, which is unencrypted.
But Apple recently took a new tack, and appeared to stumble along the way. Amid intensifying pressure from Congress, in August the company announced a complex new system for identifying child-exploitative imagery on users’ iCloud backups. Apple insisted the new system poses no threat to private content, but privacy advocates accused the company of creating a backdoor that potentially allows authoritarian governments to demand broader content searches, which could result in the targeting of dissidents, journalists or other critics of the state. On Sept. 3, Apple announced it would delay implementation of the new system.
Still, it’s Facebook that seems to face the most constant skepticism among major tech platforms. It is using encryption to market itself as privacy-friendly, while saying little about the other ways it collects data, according to Lloyd Richardson, the director of IT at the Canadian Centre for Child Protection. “This whole idea that they’re doing it for personal protection of people is completely ludicrous,” Richardson said. “You’re trusting an app owned and written by Facebook to do exactly what they’re saying. Do you trust that entity to do that?” (On Sept. 2, Irish authorities announced that they are fining WhatsApp 225 million euros, about $267 million, for failing to properly disclose how the company shares user information with other Facebook platforms. WhatsApp is contesting the finding.)
Facebook’s emphasis on promoting WhatsApp as a paragon of privacy is evident in the December marketing document obtained by ProPublica. The “Brand Foundations” presentation says it was the product of a 21-member global team across all of Facebook, involving a half-dozen workshops, quantitative research, “stakeholder interviews” and “endless brainstorms.” Its aim: to offer “an emotional articulation” of WhatsApp’s benefits, “an inspirational toolkit that helps us tell our story,” and a “brand purpose to champion the deep human connection that leads to progress.” The marketing deck identifies a feeling of “closeness” as WhatsApp’s “ownable emotional territory,” saying the app delivers “the closest thing to an in-person conversation.”
WhatsApp should portray itself as “courageous,” according to another slide, because it’s “taking a strong, public stance that is not financially motivated on things we care about,” such as defending encryption and fighting misinformation. But the presentation also speaks of the need to “open the aperture of the brand to encompass our future business objectives. While privacy will remain important, we must accommodate for future innovations.”
The policy change focused on how messages and data would be handled when users communicate with a business in the ever-expanding array of WhatsApp Business offerings. Companies now could store their chats with users and use information about users for marketing purposes, including targeting them with ads on Facebook or Instagram.
Elon Musk tweeted “Use Signal,” and WhatsApp users rebelled. Facebook delayed for three months the requirement for users to approve the policy update. In the meantime, it struggled to convince users that the change would have no effect on the privacy protections for their personal communications, with a slightly modified version of its usual assurance: “WhatsApp cannot see your personal messages or hear your calls and neither can Facebook.” Just as when the company first bought WhatsApp years before, the message was the same: Trust us.
Sept. 10, 2021: This story originally stated incorrectly that Apple’s iMessage system has no “report” button. The iMessage system does have a report button, but only for suspected spam (not for suspected abusive content).
It was a moment three years in the making, based on intensive research and design work: On Sept. 5, for the first time, a large high-temperature superconducting electromagnet was ramped up to a field strength of 20 tesla, the most powerful magnetic field of its kind ever created on Earth. That successful demonstration helps resolve the greatest uncertainty in the quest to build the world’s first fusion power plant that can produce more power than it consumes, according to the project’s leaders at MIT and startup company Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS).
That advance paves the way, they say, for the long-sought creation of practical, inexpensive, carbon-free power plants that could make a major contribution to limiting the effects of global climate change.
„Fusion in a lot of ways is the ultimate clean energy source,“ says Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research and E. A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics. „The amount of power that is available is really game-changing.“ The fuel used to create fusion energy comes from water, and „the Earth is full of water—it’s a nearly unlimited resource. We just have to figure out how to utilize it.“
Developing the new magnet is seen as the greatest technological hurdle to making that happen; its successful operation now opens the door to demonstrating fusion in a lab on Earth, which has been pursued for decades with limited progress. With the magnet technology now successfully demonstrated, the MIT-CFS collaboration is on track to build the world’s first fusion device that can create and confine a plasma that produces more energy than it consumes. That demonstration device, called SPARC, is targeted for completion in 2025.
„The challenges of making fusion happen are both technical and scientific,“ says Dennis Whyte, director of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center, which is working with CFS to develop SPARC. But once the technology is proven, he says, „it’s an inexhaustible, carbon-free source of energy that you can deploy anywhere and at any time. It’s really a fundamentally new energy source.“
Whyte, who is the Hitachi America Professor of Engineering, says this week’s demonstration represents a major milestone, addressing the biggest questions remaining about the feasibility of the SPARC design. „It’s really a watershed moment, I believe, in fusion science and technology,“ he says.
The sun in a bottle
Fusion is the process that powers the sun: the merger of two small atoms to make a larger one, releasing prodigious amounts of energy. But the process requires temperatures far beyond what any solid material could withstand. To capture the sun’s power source here on Earth, what’s needed is a way of capturing and containing something that hot—100,000,000 degrees or more—by suspending it in a way that prevents it from coming into contact with anything solid.
That’s done through intense magnetic fields, which form a kind of invisible bottle to contain the hot swirling soup of protons and electrons, called a plasma. Because the particles have an electric charge, they are strongly controlled by the magnetic fields, and the most widely used configuration for containing them is a donut-shaped device called a tokamak. Most of these devices have produced their magnetic fields using conventional electromagnets made of copper, but the latest and largest version under construction in France, called ITER, uses what are known as low-temperature superconductors.
The major innovation in the MIT-CFS fusion design is the use of high-temperature superconductors, which enable a much stronger magnetic field in a smaller space. This design was made possible by a new kind of superconducting material that became commercially available a few years ago. The idea initially arose as a class project in a nuclear engineering class taught by Whyte. The idea seemed so promising that it continued to be developed over the next few iterations of that class, leading to the ARC power plant design concept in early 2015. SPARC, designed to be about half the size of ARC, is a testbed to prove the concept before construction of the full-size, power-producing plant.
Until now, the only way to achieve the colossally powerful magnetic fields needed to create a magnetic „bottle“ capable of containing plasma heated up to hundreds of millions of degrees was to make them larger and larger. But the new high-temperature superconductor material, made in the form of a flat, ribbon-like tape, makes it possible to achieve a higher magnetic field in a smaller device, equaling the performance that would be achieved in an apparatus 40 times larger in volume using conventional low-temperature superconducting magnets. That leap in power versus size is the key element in ARC’s revolutionary design.
The use of the new high-temperature superconducting magnets makes it possible to apply decades of experimental knowledge gained from the operation of tokamak experiments, including MIT’s own Alcator series. The new approach uses a well-known design but scales everything down to about half the linear size and still achieves the same operational conditions because of the higher magnetic field.
A series of scientific papers published last year outlined the physical basis and, by simulation, confirmed the viability of the new fusion device. The papers showed that, if the magnets worked as expected, the whole fusion system should indeed produce net power output, for the first time in decades of fusion research.
Martin Greenwald, deputy director and senior research scientist at the PSFC, says unlike some other designs for fusion experiments, „the niche that we were filling was to use conventional plasma physics, and conventional tokamak designs and engineering, but bring to it this new magnet technology. So, we weren’t requiring innovation in a half-dozen different areas. We would just innovate on the magnet, and then apply the knowledge base of what’s been learned over the last decades.“
That combination of scientifically established design principles and game-changing magnetic field strength is what makes it possible to achieve a plant that could be economically viable and developed on a fast track. „It’s a big moment,“ says Bob Mumgaard, CEO of CFS. „We now have a platform that is both scientifically very well-advanced, because of the decades of research on these machines, and also commercially very interesting. What it does is allow us to build devices faster, smaller, and at less cost,“ he says of the successful magnet demonstration.
Proof of the concept
Bringing that new magnet concept to reality required three years of intensive work on design, establishing supply chains, and working out manufacturing methods for magnets that may eventually need to be produced by the thousands.
„We built a first-of-a-kind, superconducting magnet. It required a lot of work to create unique manufacturing processes and equipment. As a result, we are now well-prepared to ramp-up for SPARC production,“ says Joy Dunn, head of operations at CFS. „We started with a physics model and a CAD design, and worked through lots of development and prototypes to turn a design on paper into this actual physical magnet.“ That entailed building manufacturing capabilities and testing facilities, including an iterative process with multiple suppliers of the superconducting tape, to help them reach the ability to produce material that met the needed specifications—and for which CFS is now overwhelmingly the world’s biggest user.
They worked with two possible magnet designs in parallel, both of which ended up meeting the design requirements, she says. „It really came down to which one would revolutionize the way that we make superconducting magnets, and which one was easier to build.“ The design they adopted clearly stood out in that regard, she says.
In this test, the new magnet was gradually powered up in a series of steps until reaching the goal of a 20 tesla magnetic field—the highest field strength ever for a high-temperature superconducting fusion magnet. The magnet is composed of 16 plates stacked together, each one of which by itself would be the most powerful high-temperature superconducting magnet in the world.
„Three years ago we announced a plan,“ says Mumgaard, „to build a 20-tesla magnet, which is what we will need for future fusion machines.“ That goal has now been achieved, right on schedule, even with the pandemic, he says.
Citing the series of physics papers published last year, Brandon Sorbom, the chief science officer at CFS, says „basically the papers conclude that if we build the magnet, all of the physics will work in SPARC. So, this demonstration answers the question: Can they build the magnet? It’s a very exciting time! It’s a huge milestone.“
The next step will be building SPARC, a smaller-scale version of the planned ARC power plant. The successful operation of SPARC will demonstrate that a full-scale commercial fusion power plant is practical, clearing the way for rapid design and construction of that pioneering device can then proceed full speed.
Zuber says that „I now am genuinely optimistic that SPARC can achieve net positive energy, based on the demonstrated performance of the magnets. The next step is to scale up, to build an actual power plant. There are still many challenges ahead, not the least of which is developing a design that allows for reliable, sustained operation. And realizing that the goal here is commercialization, another major challenge will be economic. How do you design these power plants so it will be cost effective to build and deploy them?“
Someday in a hoped-for future, when there may be thousands of fusion plants powering clean electric grids around the world, Zuber says, „I think we’re going to look back and think about how we got there, and I think the demonstration of the magnet technology, for me, is the time when I believed that, wow, we can really do this.“
The successful creation of a power-producing fusion device would be a tremendous scientific achievement, Zuber notes. But that’s not the main point. „None of us are trying to win trophies at this point. We’re trying to keep the planet livable.“
The agenda, part of an email which was recently published in connection with the ongoing Epic v. Apple lawsuit, is long and detailed, with tons of lessons for business leaders. But it’s the first point on the agenda, entitled „2011 Strategy“ and assigned to Jobs himself, that stands out most.
Jobs’s agenda point consists of only six major bullet points, but each one teaches an amazing lesson.
The six points are as follows:
Who are we?
What do we do?
Post PC era
2011: Holy War with Google
2011: Year of the Cloud
2015: New Campus
Let’s break each of them down.
Jobs begins with two very important questions:
Who are we?
What do we do?
Upon first glance, these questions might surprise you. After all, Jobs had been back as CEO of Apple for over a decade at this point, and had conducted one of the greatest turnarounds ever.
But Jobs knew well how easy it is to fall from the top. Apple had experienced huge success in the past, only to lose itself in a flurry of products and initiatives.
To keep history from repeating itself, Jobs knew Apple needed to continually question who it was and what it did. It had to clearly identify company leadership, values, and focus — and make sure to align its goals with its desired culture and purpose.
Takeaway: Your company will change as time goes on. Keep questioning yourself, and make those changes intentional, not accidental.
Identify your strengths
The next bullet point, „Post PC era,“ did two important things. First, it early identified the consumer shift of purchasing more mobile devices.
Just as important, though, it highlighted Apple’s strength in this nascent market.
„Apple is the first company to get here,“ Jobs wrote — which was entirely true, as the iPhone and iPad had proven revolutionary. Mobile products now accounted for 66 percent of the company’s revenues, with the iPad alone having outsold the Mac within six months.
The key for future success, as Jobs outlined, would be to leverage this shift through continued improvement of mobile devices, communication, apps, and cloud services — a strategy that Apple is continuing to follow over a decade later and that has transformed it into a trillion-dollar company.
Takeaway: Identify what your company does well in the context of the overall market. Then, double down on doing those things better.
Learn from competitors
The next bullet point encapsulated Jobs’s view of the competition:
2011: Holy War with Google
While it was true that the iPhone and iPad were revolutionary, Google had begun to surpass Apple in some ways — and Jobs knew it. Later in the agenda, he highlighted how Google’s Android operating system excelled at deeply integrating Google’s cloud services, admitting that Android was „way ahead of Apple“ in cloud services for contacts, calendar, and mail.
The goal, then?
„Catch up to Android where we are behind…and leapfrog them.“
Takeaway: Focus on your strengths, but ignore your weaknesses at your own peril.
Focus on one big thing
Jobs next clearly establishes the single most important priority for 2011, which he terms „the year of the cloud.“
Apple „invented“ the digital hub concept, writes Jobs, by using the PC as a hub for digital assets like contacts, calendars, photos, music, and videos. But the digital hub was shifting from the PC to the cloud, and Apple had to move fast.
„Google and Microsoft are further along on the technology,“ he wrote, „but [they] haven’t quite figured it out yet…. [We need to] tie all of our products together, so we further lock customers into our ecosystem.“
Identifying and executing on this priority was pivotal in helping shape Apple’s strategy for years to come, and in helping the company keep up with — and, in some ways, surpass — its competitors.
Takeaway: There are countless things you could be working on, a few things you should be working on, and only one thing that should be your top priority.
Figure it out, and make sure everyone is working to support it.
Look to the future
Jobs’s final bullet point is only three words:
2015: New Campus
Of course, this was a reference to what eventually became „Apple Park,“ the company’s 175-acre campus and futuristic office complex that now serves as the its corporate headquarters. This was one of the final projects pitched by Jobs, a workplace that would embody the spirit of Apple and inspire employees to continue to „think different.“
Sadly, Jobs didn’t live to see construction on Apple’s new campus begin. However, he set the plans in motion and was heavily involved in the design of the campus, reportedly specifying even small details about building materials and other features.
And in April 2017, two years later than originally planned, Apple Park was opened to employees.
Takeaway: Focus on the here and now. But always, always plan for the future.
There it is.
A single agenda topic. Six major bullet points. Just enough words to form a few paragraphs, at most.
Yet, those few words contain a master class in business strategy:
1. Be intentional
2. Identify your strengths
3. Learn from competitors
4. Focus on one big thing
5. Look to the future
Take a page out of Steve Jobs’s playbook and use those five steps to help plan your business strategy.
When Tim Cook took over as chief executive of Apple, it was a corporate transition unlike any other. He stepped out from the shadow of one of the best-known American CEOs and took the reins of one of the world’s biggest tech companies facing some uncertainty about how much more successful it could be.
Ten years into the job, Cook now leads the most valuable company in the world — technology or otherwise — and it remains among the most influential. More than a billion people worldwide use its devices and tens of millions of developers have built businesses on its software platforms.
Cook took over as CEO from Steve Jobs on August 24, 2011, less than two months before the Apple founder passed away. Since then, Apple’s (AAPL) market capitalization has grown around 600% to nearly $2.5 trillion, and its annual revenue has more than doubled.
If Jobs was known for his ability to create groundbreaking devices that redefined consumers‘ experience of technology, Cook may come to be known for expanding the Apple ecosystem — building a suite of subscription services and other hardware products that complement the core iPhone business Jobs launched.
Inside Apple, Cook inherited a company culture known for being relentlessly demanding and he’s now managing at a time where tech workers have been increasingly vocal about social issues. (Cook himself, who in 2014 became one of the first leading CEOs to come out as gay, has been involved in LGBTQ+ rights advocacy.)
What Cook hasn’t done is launch another product as successful and disruptive as the iPhone, but he’s found ways to keep Apple growing without that.
„It’s possibly the most successful handoff from strength to strength in corporate history,“ Mike Bailey, director of research at FBB Capital Partners, said of the transition from Jobs to Cook. „Apple, frankly, needed a cheerleader and a politician, possibly more than a micromanaging, stressed out founder.“
Bailey added: „You’re maintaining the empire, as opposed to building one.“
The growth of services
A month after taking over as CEO, Cook announced the launch of the iPhone 4S. Since then, Apple has released nearly two dozen more versions of the iPhone at a wider range of price points, along with new generations of the iPad, Mac and MacBook. Cook has also overseen the introduction of new hardware products — most successfully, the Apple Watch in 2015 and AirPods in 2016.
But even more important than the new devices brought to life under his leadership is the growth of Apple’s services business.
„From a hardware standpoint, I think you can make the argument that it’s been more iterative than revolutionary, but I think that diminishes his contribution to the company,“ said D.A. Davidson analyst Tom Forte, adding that Cook expanded the notion of what Apple is. „He said … ‚What can Apple be? Apple can be a music subscription service, Apple can be a fitness subscription service, Apple can be much more than the App Store.'“
Even in the first five years of his tenure, Apple was making meaningful revenue from its Services division, which included products such as iCloud, which launched in October 2011; Apple Podcasts, which launched in 2012; and Apple Music, which launched in 2015. In January 2016, Apple revealed for the first time that it had generated $20 billion in services sales in the previous year.
A central piece of Tim Cook’s strategy has been expanding Apple services such as Fitness+.
Since then, Apple has launched even more services, including Apple Arcade, Apple TV+ and Apple Fitness+, along with a subscription bundle, which have further boosted the business. In the 2020 fiscal year, Apple generated nearly $53.8 billion in services revenue, accounting for around 20% of the company’s total sales. (Apple doesn’t break out sales for individual services.)
Apple’s focus on services has allowed it to be less reliant on iPhone sales, which can be volatile from quarter to quarter and have begun to plateau, even dipping at times under Cook. A key focus for Cook has been offsetting that slowing iPhone growth.
„He kept the iPhone party going, but he solved a boom-bust problem by exploding their services business,“ FBB’s Bailey said.
Apple still brings in hoards of cash each year from iPhone sales. But now, it also has the more consistent, higher margin profits from subscription services to act as a buffer as customers hold onto their devices for longer. Services also give consumers yet more reasons to choose Apple hardware over others, and helps the company eke out more dollars from each person that buys one of its devices.
Cook has already said he doesn’t plan to be at Apple in another 10 years. But most followers of the company expect him to stick around for at least a few more.
In that time, he’ll have plenty on his plate that could shape the future of the company, including the long rumored release of an Apple car and AR glasses, as well as its continued efforts to build its own chips for its devices.
But he’ll also face major challenges, including Apple’s current antitrust fight with app developers and regulators. Forte also questioned whether Apple will be able to maintain its leadership position if the growth in internet of things devices means consumers become less reliant on smartphones. Apple has yet to gain the same traction in connected home devices as Amazon’s Alexa, and earlier this year killed off its original HomePod in favor of the cheaper mini version.
„An argument can be made that they’re [still] heavily dependent on the iPhone,“ Forte said. „I’m still trying to envision what the future looks like and what happens when the smartphone is no longer the center of the universe.“
Under Cook, Apple has also been working to address its impact on the environment, including plans to become carbon neutral by 2030. But given that the company is dependent on a complex global supply chain and non-renewable rare earth metals to build its products, Cook will likely have to push the company’s efforts further in the coming years, as climate change poses an increasingly existential threat.
Then there’s the question of who will take over leading the world’s biggest company when Cook does step down. Jeff Williams, Apple’s current chief operating officer, who has been dubbed Tim Cook’s Tim Cook in the tech press, would be an obvious choice if he were taking over now. But at just two years younger than Cook, that succession plan could be more questionable in even a few years, Bailey said.
„It doesn’t look like there’s another insider, number two, ready to go, so I do think that’s something Apple’s going to have to start to address over the next two years,“ he said.
I was driving up through Pennsylvania last summer, somewhere along US Route 15 between Harrisburg and Williamsport, when I saw a familiar face: a goofy cartoon duck wearing a green bowtie. It was the logo for DuckDuckGo, the privacy-focused search engine, along with a message: “Tired of Being Tracked Online? We Can Help.”
The sight of a tech company on a billboard in rural Pennsylvania was surprising enough to lodge in my memory. Highways in and out of Silicon Valley may be lined with billboards advertising startups, where they can be easily spied by VCs and other industry influencers, but the post-industrial communities hugging the Susquehanna River will never be confused with Palo Alto. Far more typical are road signs advertising a fireworks store, a sex shop, or Donald Trump. I found it hard to imagine that the other drivers on the road were really the audience for an internet company that occupies a very specific niche.
It turns out DuckDuckGo—itself based in Valley Forge, PA, about 90 miles east of Route 15—knew something I didn’t. According to the company’s market research, just about every demographic wants more data privacy: young, old, male, female, urban, rural. Public polling backs that up, though the results vary based on how the question is asked. One recent survey found that “93 percent of Americans would switch to a company that prioritizes data privacy if given the option.” Another reported that 57 percent of Americans would give up personalization in exchange for privacy. Perhaps most telling are the early returns on Apple’s new App Tracking Transparency system, which prompts iOS users to opt in to being tracked by third-party apps rather than handing over their data by default, as has long been standard. According to some estimates, only a tiny minority of users are choosing to allow tracking.
The problem for a company like DuckDuckGo, then, isn’t making people care about privacy; it’s convincing them that privacy is possible. Many consumers, the company has found, have basically thrown up their hands in resignation, concluding that there’s no way out of the modern surveillance economy. It’s easy to see why. Each new story about data privacy, whether it’s about the pervasiveness of tracking, or a huge data breach, or Facebook or Google’s latest violation of user trust, not only underscores the extent of corporate surveillance but also makes it feel increasingly inescapable.
DuckDuckGo is on a mission to prove that giving up one’s privacy online is not, in fact, inevitable. Over the past several years, it has expanded far beyond its original search engine to provide a suite of free privacy-centric tools, including a popular browser extension, that plug up the various holes through which ad tech companies and data brokers spy on us as we browse the internet and use our phones. This year it will roll out some major new products and features, including a desktop browser and email privacy protection. And it will spend more money than it ever has on advertising to get the word out. The long-term goal is to turn DuckDuckGo into an all-in-one online privacy shield—what Gabriel Weinberg, the company’s founder and CEO, calls “the ‘easy button’ for privacy.”
“People want privacy, but they feel like it’s impossible to get,” Weinberg says. “So our main challenge is to make the idea that you can get simple privacy protection credible.”
Whether that mission succeeds could have consequences far beyond DuckDuckGo’s bottom line. DuckDuckGo is operating to some extent in the shadow of Apple, which has already made privacy a core part of its pitch to customers. But DuckDuckGo’s ambition is to provide a suite of protections that are even more extensive and intuitive than Apple’s. And it is offering them to the millions of people who don’t want or can’t afford to use Apple products: Google’s Android operating system accounts for about 50 percent of the mobile market in the US and more than 70 percent worldwide. Perhaps most important, if DuckDuckGo succeeds at bringing simple privacy to the masses, it will mean that the future of privacy might not depend on the relative benevolence of just two corporate overlords.
Founded in 2008, DuckDuckGo is best known for its search engine. Which means that it has always been defined as a challenger to Google. It has not shied away from the comparison. In 2011, Weinberg, then the company’s sole employee, took out an ad on a billboard in San Francisco that declared, “Google tracks you. We don’t.” That branding—Google, but private—has served the company well in the years since.
“The only way to compete with Google is not to try to compete on search results,” says Brad Burnham, a partner at Union Square Ventures, which gave DuckDuckGo its first and only Series A funding in 2011. When the upstart launched, Google already controlled 90 percent of the market and was spending billions of dollars, and collecting data on billions of users, to make its product even better. DuckDuckGo, however, “offered something that Google couldn’t offer,” Burnham says: “They offered not to track you. And Google’s entire business model is, obviously, built on the ability to do that, so Google couldn’t respond by saying, ‘OK, we won’t track you either.’”
Neither DuckDuckGo nor anyone else came close to stopping Google from dominating search. Today, Google’s market share still hovers around the 90 percent range. But the pie is so enormous—advertisers spent $60 billion on search advertising in the US alone last year, according to eMarketer—that there’s quite a bit of money in even a tiny slice. DuckDuckGo has been profitable since 2014.
Like Google Search, DuckDuckGo makes money by selling ads on top of people’s search results. The difference is that while the ads you see when searching on Google are generally targeted to you in part based on your past searches, plus what Google knows about your behavior more broadly, DuckDuckGo’s are purely “contextual”—that is, they are based only on the search term. That’s because DuckDuckGo doesn’t know anything about you. It doesn’t assign you an identifier or keep track of your search history in order to personalize your results.
This non-creepy approach only protects you, however, while you’re on DuckDuckGo. “You’re anonymous on the search engine, but once you click off, now you’re going to other websites where you’re less anonymous,” Weinberg says. “How can we protect you there?”
DuckDuckGo’s first answer to that question rolled out in 2018, with the launch of a desktop browser extension and mobile browser that block third-party trackers by default wherever a user goes on the internet. It was good timing: 2018 was a banner year for raising privacy awareness. Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal broke that spring. The GDPR took effect in Europe, throwing into relief how little the US regulates data collection. That summer, the Associated Press revealed that many Google services were storing your location data even if you explicitly opted out. Data collection and privacy were firmly in the national conversation. Since then, congressionalinquiries, antitrustlawsuits, Netflix documentaries, and a growing feud between Apple and Facebook have kept it there.
“One of the funny things about DuckDuckGo is that the single best marketing we’ve ever had has been the gaffes that Google and Facebook have made over the years,” says Burnham. “Cambridge Analytica, for instance, was a huge driver of adoption for DuckDuckGo. There is an increasing awareness of how this business model works and what it means—not just in terms of the loss of privacy and agency over our own data, but also what it means for the vibrance and success of an open marketplace.”
Awareness is one thing, action another. DuckDuckGo was in position to capitalize on the rising tide of scandal because it has a reputation for building products that work. In 2019, for instance, it added a feature to its extension and browser that directs users to encrypted versions of websites whenever possible, preventing would-be hackers or ISPs from, say, looking over your shoulder as you type a password into a web page. While other encryption tools work by manually creating lists of tens of thousands of websites in need of an upgrade, DuckDuckGo crawled the internet to automatically populate a list of more than 12 million sites. The Electronic Frontier Foundation recently announced that it would incorporate DuckDuckGo’s dataset for its own HTTPS Everywhere extension. Similarly, Apple uses DuckDuckGo’s Tracker Radar dataset—a continuously updated, publicly available list of trackers assembled using open-source code—for Safari’s tracking prevention.
Weinberg is particularly proud of DuckDuckGo’s tracker prevention. Surveillance is so built into the infrastructure of the web that many sites will stop functioning if you block all cookies. Take Google Analytics, which is found on the vast majority of websites. “If you just straight-up block Google Analytics, you’ll break sites,” Weinberg says. As a result, mainstream browsers with tracking prevention, like Safari and Firefox, allow trackers to load, then try to restrict the data they can gather.
“They’re more inclined to err on the side of not breaking websites,” explains Bennett Cyphers, a technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “They will try and do this middle ground thing where they’ll load resources but restrict what Google can do once it’s in your browser.”
The problem is that even allowing a tracker to load in the first place can allow it to gather highly specific data about the user, including their IP address. So DuckDuckGo, like some other privacy extensions, works differently. It simply prevents the cookie from loading at all. To avoid the broken-site problem, it replaces some trackers with a dummy that essentially tricks the site into thinking the cookie has loaded, a technique called “surrogates” pioneered by the ad blocker uBlock Origin.
Ultimately, DuckDuckGo probably owes its success less to the technical aspects of its tracker prevention, which very few people are in any position to understand, than to the fact that the company does a pretty good job honoring its slogan: “Privacy, simplified.” Its products don’t require a user to toggle any elaborate settings. They simply include encryption, tracker blocking, and private search automatically.
Since their launch, the extension and mobile browser have experienced rapid user growth. According to DuckDuckGo, the extension and browser have together been downloaded more than 100 million times since 2018, and more than half of those downloads took place over the past twelve months. That growth has in turn helped juice the use of the original search engine, which is built into mobile app. The company estimates that its search user count doubled over the past year to between 70 and 100 million. (It’s an estimate because they don’t track users.) According to StatCounter, DuckDuckGo now has the second highest share of the US mobile search market, edging out Bing and Yahoo. (A distant second, that is: 2 percent to Google’s 94 percent.) DuckDuckGo says its annual revenue is over $100 million.
This year, the company plans to significantly expand its privacy offerings. It is introducing a desktop browser, incorporating the same features as the existing mobile app. Currently, even someone with the DuckDuckGo privacy extension can’t stop Google from gathering some data on them if they’re using Chrome, for example.
DuckDuckGo is also adding two new features to its existing extension and mobile app. The first is email privacy protection. Weinberg says that his company’s researchers found that some 70 percent of emails have some sort of tracker embedded in them. That includes not just corporate promotional emails, but just about any newsletter or fundraising email that’s sent using an automated service. In nearly a third of those cases, Weinberg says, the trackers are sending users’ plaintext email addresses over the internet, potentially exposing them to any number of marketers, data brokers, and shadier actors. The email tool is designed to thwart that by forwarding messages through a DuckDuckGo email address, which will remove the trackers before sending them along to inboxes. It also will allow people to generate random email addresses whenever they have to use email to sign up for something. (Apple recently announced a similar feature for the Mail app on iOS.) In theory, DuckDuckGo could have created its own email client, but Weinberg recognizes getting users to switch their email providers is prohibitively difficult.
“Our goal is simplicity, right?” he says. “We want to make privacy simple and seamless without sacrifice for users.”
The final new tech DuckDuckGo is unveiling this year operates on a similar principle. A new feature within its Android app will operate in the background, even when the app itself is not in use, to block third parties from tracking you through any other app on your phone. It does that by using the phone’s VPN permission to route all traffic through DuckDuckGo, so that, as with the email trackers, it can block requests from anyone on its tracker list before they have an opportunity to gather any user data. (Again, this is somewhat analogous to Apple’s App Tracking Transparency on iOS. It will not stop first-party data collection, meaning the app you’re using can still collect your data. But it won’t be able to pass that data through to other companies, including Facebook, which currently tracks users through a vast number of unrelated apps.)
Taken together, the new features, which the company says will be available in beta this summer, represent DuckDuckGo’s evolving mission to create what Weinberg calls “the privacy layer of the internet.”
“The ideal case for that from a user perspective is, you download DuckDuckGo and you’re just protected wherever you go online,” he says. “We’re obviously not there yet, but that’s the product vision.”
So, about those billboards.
The company’s reliance on old-school advertising mediums—in addition to billboards, DuckDuckGo is partial to radio ads—is partly of necessity: As a privacy-focused business, it refuses to do any microtargeted online advertising. (Even when it advertises on a social media site like Twitter, Weinberg says it doesn’t set any demographic targeting parameters.) But the strategy also stems from the company’s market research, which has found that precise targeting would be a waste of money anyway.
“People who care about privacy, who act on privacy, who would adopt a DuckDuckGo product—they’re actually not a very niche audience,” says Zac Pappis, head of the company’s user insight team. “People who act and care about privacy don’t fall into a particular age group or demographic or have a particular psychographic background, so that makes them easier to reach.”
To put it in advertising parlance, this means DuckDuckGo spends its marketing budget on brand awareness. Ordinary people around the country don’t need to be convinced to care about privacy, the theory goes—they just need to learn that a solution exists. “Our current top business priority is to be the household name for simple online privacy protection,” Weinberg says. “So when you think about privacy online, we want you to turn to DuckDuckGo.”
To that end, the company is investing in its biggest marketing blitz to date this year, devoting tens of millions to an advertising push—so expect more billboards and more radio ads during those summer road trips. Weinberg believes the time is ripe. He points out the fact that tech giants like Apple, Facebook, and Google have all been raising the salience of privacy through very public battles over their policies and products. Plus, the ongoing antitrust lawsuits against the tech giants will draw more attention to those companies’ business practices, including around user privacy. One of the cases, brought by the Department of Justice, could even give DuckDuckGo a direct boost by preventing Google from being set as the default search engine on phones.
DuckDuckGo has competition. Companies like Ghostery offer tracking protection. Brave has a well-regarded privacy browser. The Netherlands-based Startpage offers search without tracking. But in the US, at least, DuckDuckGo has a strong position in the privacy market. In a sector where users have to trust that your product works the way you say it does, a decade-long track record without any privacy scandals establishes important credibility. “They’re probably the biggest name right now, probably because of the popularity of their search engine,” says Jon Callas, director of technology products at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
But being the biggest name among people with a special interest in online privacy still amounts to being a big fish in a small pond. Weinberg believes DuckDuckGo can change that. He is convinced that the pond is actually huge. It just doesn’t know it yet.
I will never forget the first time I drove a Tesla Model X. My producer rented one when we met up with a movie star to record narration for a film I was directing. “This better not be tacked onto the film budget,” I griped.
He grinned and tossed me the Tesla-shaped key. “It’s your birthday present.”
I dropped the body to its most ground-hugging setting, set the acceleration to Ludicrous Mode, and roared out of the airport. It was one of the most exhilarating rides of my entire life — almost as fun as the time I drove 150MPH with no plates and no insurance on a toll road as an idiot teenager.
Driving a Tesla X is a pure pleasure, but it doesn’t mean Tesla Inc. will survive.
In fact, forces are aligning that could easily wipe Tesla off the map. Here are seven reasons why Tesla probably won’t exist fifty years from now:
1. It doesn’t make money from selling cars
As professor Scott Galloway recently pointed out, if you subtract Tesla’s Bitcoin ponzi profits and emissions credits, Tesla actually loses money:
“Tesla posts an accounting profit, but in its most recent quarter, it was emissions credits (a regulatory program that rewards auto companies for making electric rather than gas vehicles) and — wait for it — $101 million in bitcoin trading profits that morphed earnings from a miss to a beat. What Tesla did not do last quarter was produce a single one of its two premium cars, the Model S or the Model X.”
Losing money doesn’t seem to worry speculators during peaks of irrational exuberance, but when the rubber meets the road and the stock bubble pops and corporate credit constricts, real investors will want no part in money-burning businesses.
And it won’t take a full market meltdown for Tesla to become a money-losing entity: If the global crypto ponzi bubble pops due to more countries banning or regulating it, or regulators do away with emissions credits, Tesla once again becomes a money-bleeding company.
2. Elon Musk is too distracted to remain CEO
One thing you’ve got to appreciate about Elon Musk is that he’s voraciously curious and wants to solve some of humanity’s biggest challenges.
But that’s not who you want as CEO of a publicly-traded company.
If he keeps up these sorts of shenanigans — and he needs to in order to keep the stock price pumped — it’s only a matter of time before government regulators and progressive politicians renew their efforts to rein him in.
Speaking of lawsuits: There are already rumblings that his SNL Asperger’s announcement should have been disclosed to investors — when the stock tanks, expect to see this admission somewhere in the shareholder lawsuit, whether it’s fair grounds or not.
5. The stock price is wildly overvalued
Cue the angry comments from hodlers. (But please note that I automatically delete comments if the poster doesn’t disclose their TSLA holdings.)
As a sound investment, $TSLA stock is one of the worst picks in the world. As a fun gamble/speculation, it’s one of the best. But, just like Bitcoin, small investors are going to lose hundreds of billions of dollars when the price bubble pops.
Because let’s face it: Tesla is a story stock.
Don’t believe me? Just look at who’s been buying shares:
Tesla stock is clearly being pumped by unsophisticated investors who haven’t done their due diligence regarding the company’s actual long-term worth.
The end result: When thousands of Tesla speculators lose their life savings, many will turn their backs on the company, if not become actively hostile.
What is $TSLA actually worth?
First, we need some context. The price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio is considered the benchmark number for comparing one company’s stock price to another. The ratio is based on the current stock price divided by the trailing 12-month earnings per share. If a stock price is $10/share, and the P/E ratio is 10, it means that company is earning $1 per share. If you buy a $10 share with a P/E of 20, it’ll roughly take you 20 years to break even.
Warren Buffett likes to buy stocks with a P/E of around 12.
The S&P 500’s long-term median P/E ratio is around 15.
The S&P 500’s current P/E ratio is around 44 — nearly triple its century-long average — despite the pandemic and a looming joblessness crisis. (#Bubble)
Cue the irrational exuberancers: “But Tesla’s future potential is huge!”
No, it’s not, not compared to its current price. To fall in line with the S&P’s historical averages and provide a reasonable rate of real return, Tesla would need to 40X its earnings. To provide a 10% annual return, it would need to 63X its earnings. Well over $2 trillion in annual revenue… 4+X more revenue than the largest revenue-earning company on earth. Not gonna happen.
Objectively, Tesla is wildly overpriced even compared to the overall market bubble. It’s a double bubble — the overall market bubble + the Musk fanboy story stock bubble. Tesla may very well be 13Xs better than the average S&P company right now, but that just means Tesla’s price bubble is that much more inflated once you scrub out all the irrational exuberance.
Tesla’s market cap is currently over $600 billion. If it traded at the same P/E as Amazon — arguably one of the strongest companies on earth — Tesla’s market cap drops to $60 billion. If you compare Tesla to Apple, which is a fair comparison and a far more rational P/E, it means that in reality, Tesla is probably only worth a measly $20 billion.
6. Volkswagen+ will come roaring back
To put things in perspective, Tesla’s market cap is currently higher than Mercedes, BMW, GM, Ferrari, and Ford, plus all the major airlines… combined.
But does Tesla have more customers, wider distribution, better engineers, deeper pockets, and more political connections than the rest of the auto and airline industries?
All his major competitors have deeper capital pools, wider distribution networks, and far more customers. Musk has nowhere near the political power. And the innovation gap is closing rapidly. That’s why Elon is constantly seeking new capital and pulling out all the stops to keep pumping the stock, even going so far as to manipulate people’s psychology through stock splits.
Elon Musk has unquestionably (and rightly) created a Thucydides Trap in the automotive industry, but is Tesla really the Athens that can best Sparta?
The question is almost irrelevant because another company is about to out-Athens Tesla and stuff Elon in his own Thucydides trap:
When Apple makes a car play, it could easily pop Tesla’s 600 P/E bubble…
If Tesla deflates to an Apple-level P/E of 30, Tesla is suddenly only worth $20 billion…
Which makes it instantly ripe for acquisition by one of the majors, be it Apple, Amazon, BMW, Mercedes, or even an old-school company like GM. (Never forget: Ford once bought Jaguar and Fiat once owned Maserati.)
To be clear, Tesla is an amazing company at a $20 billion valuation, and if Elon can’t keep the $TLSA stock price inflated indefinitely, an acquisition is inevitable. Never mind the bite in Apple’s logo… someone could chomp Tesla whole.
I adore Tesla. Like Russia and HBO, it punches way above its weight.
I also like Elon, minus his market manipulation. He’s an extremely important person in the carmaking space. I’ll say it loudly: Elon Musk is the best thing to happen to the auto industry since Henry Ford. As a maverick agitator, he awoke the slumbering giants who’d happily relied on fossil fuel combustion for more than a century. We’re better for having him.
But, in the same way that Paypal will continue to lose ground to companies like Wise and Stripe, expect Tesla to lose ground to Volkswagen and Apple and whatever innovators come next. If things play out the way I predict regarding an eventual acquisition, fifty years from now Tesla probably won’t even exist.
In the meantime, don’t buy into the stock hype and endanger your family’s future.
Just rent a Model X for a weekend and enjoy the ride.
had an interesting conversation with an activist short-seller yesterday. He’s taken down more than a dozen corrupt companies, exposing billions of dollars of fraud, literally saving lives, sending criminals to prison, and personally reaping millions in his efforts to make the world a more ethical place. I asked him if there were any similarities between all of the fraudulent companies, and his answer was immediate:
“Oh, that’s easy. At the end of the day, they were all a variant of a Ponzi scheme.”
The Ponzi scheme was the brainchild of an Italian thief with the grandiosely magnificent name of Carlo Pietro Giovanni Guglielmo Tebaldo Ponzi.
Ponzi guaranteed his investors he could double their money within 90 days, telling them he was an expert in IRC coupon arbitrage. In reality, Ponzi simply paid his earlier investors with the investments of later investors.
Such schemes obviously cannot last forever — doubling your profit every quarter forever is mathematically absurd. For a while, Ponzi lived like a king, buying himself a mansion, honeymooning in Italy, opening a winery, even buying a macaroni factory on the side. When one reporter grew suspicious of Ponzi’s rapid rise, the con man sued for libel and won $500,000.
In the end, Ponzi’s scheme ran for just over a year before collapsing, shuttering six banks and costing thousands of investors the equivalent of $250 million in today’s money.
Ponzi went bankrupt in the court cases that followed and was sentenced to more than a decade in prison. Upon release, he set up a Florida swampland scheme that also eventually failed. After serving another seven years in prison he was deported back to Italy, before eventually dying in poverty in Brazil.
How All Ponzi Schemes End
According to my new activist short-seller friend, giant financial frauds typically end in one of three ways:
The company eventually gets shut down and the CEO goes to jail.
The company gets bought out by a bigger company — either a sucker company or a larger fraudulent firm.
The company uses a Black Swan event — like a pandemic or a housing crash — as an excuse to “naturally” go bankrupt, which allows the founder to save face… and then start a new company. After all, who could’ve predicted a recession? Let’s give the guy another chance. (Following 9/11, Bernie Madoff was gleeful that a giant war would give him enough cover to collapse his Ponzi scheme, but when the markets quickly rebounded, he had to keep the charade going.)
Does this sound in any way familiar?
Right now, Bitcoin is a textbook Ponzi scheme:
It has no intrinsic value. You can’t eat it, wear it, or heat your house with it. Unlike gold — which at least feels nice and looks shiny on your spouse’s ring finger — you can’t even see Bitcoin.
It is not a productive asset. It’s not a factory that produces an item. It’s not a field that produces cucumbers. It’s not a firm that offers a service. It contributes nothing to society.
It has zero underlying value. None. It’s not backed by land or commodities or — as with national currencies like USD or GBP — the threat of violence (in the form of wage garnishment, asset seizure, and imprisonment.)
It has minimal utility. Because the price fluctuates so wildly (what healthy currency doubles in a month?), it’s virtually ineffective as a safe representation of value or means of trade.
Its value is solely derived from the trust that the price will continue to rise indefinitely. That there will always be new investors to buy out the old ones.
The evidence is crystal clear, and don’t trust any online Bitboy who tells you otherwise:
Bitcoin is a Ponzi scheme… for now.
How Does It End for Bitcoin?
Certainly not like your usual Ponzi scheme.
Bitcoin’s “CEO” Satoshi Nakamoto — whoever he/she/the team might be — might already be dead or imprisoned in Guantanamo. (Heck, Bitcoin might be an invention of the NSA or advanced artificial intelligence for all we know.) Either way, Bitcoin isn’t a company, so it won’t be shut down.
It’s unlikely that anyone will ever “acquire the company” by cornering the market on Bitcoin. (And to do so would make the currency completely worthless because you’d have no one to trade with.)
And since it’s mathematically impossible for Bitcoin to grow forever, that leaves us with option three: A Black Swan event causes its demise as an investment. This is the only likely outcome. Perhaps a wildly superior cryptocurrency makes Bitcoin as irrelevant as the Model T versus a Tesla. Perhaps nations or groups of nations make a concerted effort to destroy Bitcoin, or more likely, Bitcoin owners. Or maybe Bitcoin simply levels out when it reaches max coinage, shedding its identity as an investment and becoming a stable trust-based currency. In doing so, it will drive away all the exuberant speculators who are currently propping up its inflated price. No matter how it happens, at some point, millions of Bitcoin investors are going to lose billions of dollars.
Don’t get me wrong, I am NOT a Bitcoin hater.
Cryptocurrency is a revolutionary technology. Bitcoin is downright brilliant. And there’s the outside chance that Bitcoin might eventually become THE global currency of the Internet. And I really, really hope it does.
But as nations start to roll out their own digital surveillance currencies — China just launched theirs last month — expect governments to do absolutely everything in their power to wage war on trust-based currencies like Bitcoin.
The major problem here is that most unsophisticated investors currently view Bitcoin as an investment. It’s not — it’s a currency, a vehicle of trade, a means to an end. Currency is the oil that keeps the engine running smoothly, but it’s not the engine itself.
The reality is that the majority of current Bitcoin holders see themselves as investors, not users, and have fallen prey to investment bias, sunk cost fallacy, money illusion, escalation of commitment, and a host of other cognitive biases. Not many of us say we’re “invested” in USD or CAD or GBP, because we understand that’s not a national currency’s primary purpose.
As a currency, Bitcoin is an extremely intriguing innovation.
As an investment, it is the biggest Ponzi scheme ever invented.
Bitcoin can only be considered an investment if you treat it like a Ponzi scheme. Which millions of people are currently very happy to do — because the price keeps going up, buoyed by market hysteria akin to the Dutch Tulip Mania.
It’s a story stock, a legal fiction, a collective fantasy.
But at some point, the Ponzi scheme will need to implode in order for Bitcoin to become what it was meant to become: a truly useful and profoundly accountable global currency.
Fraudulent investment, or a useable means of trust-based trade.
We can’t have it both ways.
The Problem is Trust
There are essentially three forms of currency in the world today:
Violence-based currencies (national government currencies)
Trust-based currencies (private and distributed cryptocurrencies)
Asset-based currencies (the future)
Governments like America and China do not have the moral right — nor the permission of the people — to create the violence-backed currencies of today or the digital surveillance currencies of tomorrow.
Private enterprises like Facebook and JP Morgan have not earned the trust to create corporate currencies like Libra.
Both forms of currency must die.
Money was invented to facilitate trade: I have bread, Michelle has cheese, and Andrew has wine. Humans invented money to represent the contrasting value between bread, wine, and cheese, not to say that money is bread, wine, and cheese.
People treat today’s money as though the physical paper (or digital line of code) is the actual thing of value, and not the underlying asset it supposedly represents. No one gets full on francs, drunk on dollars, and fat on colóns.
(In the case of Bitcoin, it’s even worse: almost no one truly trusts it because it isn’t asset-backed, and it has no way to enforce value the way countries can.)
It’s time to eliminate violence and trust from currency.
The reality is that our global family desperately needs an international, accountable, distributed, non-violent, non-surveilled, non-trust-based, enforceable, verifiable-asset-backed currency to serve as a means of facilitating global trade.
Bitcoin isn’t that currency. Not yet, anyway.
Is Bitcoin’s current price grossly overvalued in relation to its actual present intrinsic worth? 100% absolutely.
Could the price still rise by 5X, 20X, 100X? Absolutely.
Could the price eventually drop to mere pennies on the dollar? Absolutely.
And will a real value-backed currency eventually crush BTC and ETH? Hopefully.
This isn’t an article about whether or not Bitcoin will continue to grow or crash and burn. That will depend on the public’s irrational exuberance versus the iron will of hundreds of governments who want to continue to oppress and control their citizens with a monopolistic currency stranglehold. It will be one of the most violent battles of our time. I hope crypto wins.
All I’m saying is that it’s time for both sides to be honest:
The haters need to admit that Bitcoin is a brilliant trust-based currency.
The lovers need to admit that Bitcoin is currently being treated as a Ponzi scheme. Because it’s quite simple: The only way to turn a profit on Bitcoin is to sell it to someone else for more than you paid. That’s a Ponzi scheme.
Both sides need to take rapid steps toward creating a blockchain-based asset-backed cryptocurrency that actually functions as a currency and not as a speculative investment.
Don’t put your trust in money of any form. Avoid hysteria in all its disguises. Don’t believe the absurd hype on one side, nor the doom-and-gloom on the other. Especially don’t trust people with conflicts of interest. Always ask “who profits?”
OneOne of our themes on Decoder is that basically everything is a computer now, and farming equipment like tractors and combines are no different. My guest this week is Jahmy Hindman, chief technology officer at John Deere, the world’s biggest manufacturer of farming machinery. And I think our conversation will surprise you.
Jahmy told me that John Deere employs more software engineers than mechanical engineers now, which completely surprised me. But the entire business of farming is moving toward something called precision agriculture, which means farmers are closely tracking where seeds are planted, how well they’re growing, what those plants need, and how much they yield.
The idea, Jahmy says, is to have each plant on a massive commercial farm tended with individual care — a process which requires collecting and analyzing a massive amount of data. If you get it right, precision agriculture means farmers can be way more efficient — they can get better crop yields with less work and lower costs.
The idea, Jahmy says, is to have each plant on a massive commercial farm tended with individual care — a process which requires collecting and analyzing a massive amount of data. If you get it right, precision agriculture means farmers can be way more efficient — they can get better crop yields with less work and lower costs.
But as Decoder listeners know by now, turning everything into computers means everything has computer problems now. Like all that farming data: who owns it? Where is it processed? How do you get it off the tractors without reliable broadband networks? What format is it in? If you want to use your John Deere tractor with another farming analysis vendor, how easy is that? Is it easy enough?
And then there are the tractors themselves — unlike phones, or laptops, or even cars, tractors get used for decades. How should they get upgraded? How can they be kept secure? And most importantly, who gets to fix them when they break?
John Deere is one of the companies at the center of a nationwide reckoning over the right to repair. Right now, tech companies like Samsung and Apple and John Deere all get to determine who can repair their products and what official parts are available.
And because these things are all computers, these manufacturers can also control the software to lock out parts from other suppliers. But it’s a huge deal in the context of farming equipment, which is still extremely mechanical, often located far away from service providers and not so easy to move, and which farmers have been repairing themselves for decades. In fact, right now the prices of older, pre-computerized tractors are skyrocketing because they’re easier to repair.
Half of the states in the country are now considering right to repair laws that would require manufacturers to disable software locks and provide parts to repair shops, and a lot of it is being driven — in a bipartisan way — by the needs of farmers.
John Deere is famously a tractor company. You make a lot of equipment for farmers, for construction sites, that sort of thing. Give me the short version of what the chief technology officer at John Deere does.
[As] chief technology officer, my role is really to try to set the strategic direction from a technology perspective for the company, across both our agricultural products as well as our construction, forestry, and road-building products. It’s a cool job. I get to look out five, 10, 15, 20 years into the future and try to make sure that we’re putting into place the pieces that we need in order to have the technology solutions that are going to be important for our customers in the future.
One of the reasons I am very excited to have you on Decoder is there are a lot of computer solutions in your products. There’s hardware, software, services that I think of as sort of traditional computer company problems. Do you also oversee the portfolio of technologies that [also] make combines more efficient and tractor wheels move faster?
We’ve got a centrally-organized technology stack organization. We call it the intelligent solutions group, and its job is really to do exactly that. It’s to make sure that we’re developing technologies that can scale across the complete organization, across those combines you referenced, and the tractors and the sprayers, and the construction products, and deploy that technology as quickly as possible.
One of the things The Verge wrestles with almost every day is the question of, “What is a computer?” We wrestle with it in very small and obvious ways — we argue about whether the iPad or an Xbox is a computer. Then you can zoom all the way out: we had Jim Farley, who’s the CEO of Ford, on Decoder a couple of weeks ago, and he and I talked about how Ford’s cars are effectively rolling computers now.
Is that how you see a tractor or a combine or construction equipment — that these are gigantic computers that have big mechanical functions as well?
They absolutely are. That’s what they’ve become over time. I would call them mobile sensor suites that have computational capability, not only on-board, but to your point, off-board as well. They are continuously streaming data from whatever it is — let’s say the tractor and the planter — to the cloud. We’re doing computational work on that data in the cloud, and then serving that information, those insights, up to farmers, either on their desktop computer or on a mobile handheld device or something like that.
As much as they are doing productive work in the field, planting as an example, they are also data acquisition and computational devices.
How much of that is in-house at John Deere? How big is the team that is building your mobile apps? Is that something you outsource? Is that something you develop internally? How have you structured the company to enable this kind of work?
We do a significant amount of that work internally. It might surprise you, we have more software development engineers today within Deere than we have mechanical design engineers. That’s kind of mind-blowing for a company that’s 184 years old and has been steeped in mechanical product development, but that’s the case. We do nearly all of our own internal app development inside the four walls of Deere.
That said, our data application for customers in the ag space, for example, is the Operations Center. We do utilize third parties. There’s roughly 184 companies that have been connected to Operations Center through encrypted APIs, that are writing applications against that data for the benefit of the customers, the farmers that want to use those applications within their business.
One of the reasons we’re always debating what a computer is and isn’t is that once you describe something as a computer, you inherit a bunch of expectations about how computers work. You inherit a bunch of problems about how computers work and don’t work. You inherit a bunch of control; API access is a way of exercising control over an ecosystem or an economy.
Have you shifted the way that John Deere thinks about its products? As new abilities are created because you have computerized so much of a tractor, you also increase your responsibility, because you have a bunch more control.
There’s no doubt. We’re having to think about things like security of data, as an example, that previously, 30 years ago, was not necessarily a topic of conversation. We didn’t have competency in it. We’ve had to become competent in areas like that because of exactly the point you’re making, that the product has become more computer-like than conventional tractor-like over time.
That leads to huge questions. You mentioned security. Looking at some of your recent numbers, you have a very big business in China. Thirty years ago, you would export a tractor to China and that’s the end of that conversation. Now, there’s a huge conversation about cybersecurity, data sharing with companies in China, down the line, a set of very complicated issues for a tractor company that 30 years ago wouldn’t have any of those problems. How do you balance all those out?
It’s a different set of problems for sure, and more complicated for geopolitical reasons in the case of China, as you mentioned. Let’s take security as an example. We have gone through the change that many technology companies have had to go through in the space of security, where it’s no longer bolted on at the end, it’s built in from the ground up. So it’s the security-by-design approach. We’ve got folks embedded in development organizations across the company that do nothing every day, other than get up and think about how to make the product more secure, make the datasets more secure, make sure that the data is being used for its intended purposes and only those.
Listen to Decoder, a new show hosted by The Verge’s Nilay Patel about big ideas — and other problems. Subscribe here!
That’s a new skill. That’s a skill that we didn’t have in the organization 20 years ago that we’ve had to create and hire the necessary talent in order to develop that skill set within the company at the scale that we need to develop it at.
Go through a very basic farming season with a John Deere combine and tractor. The farmer wakes up, they say, “Okay, I’ve got a field. I’ve got to plant some seeds. We’ve got to tend to them. Eventually, we’ve got to harvest some plants.” What are the points at which data is collected, what are the points at which it’s useful, and where does the feedback loop come in?
I’m going to spin it a little bit and not start with planting.
I’m going to tell you that the next season for a farmer actually starts at harvest of the previous season, and that’s where the data thread for the next season actually starts. It starts when that combine is in the field harvesting whatever it is, corn, soybeans, cotton, whatever. And the farmer is creating, while they’re running the combine through the field, a dataset that we call a yield map. It is geospatially referenced. These combines are running through the field on satellite guidance. We know where they’re at at any point in time, latitude, longitude, and we know how much they’re harvesting at that point in time.
So we create this three-dimensional map that is the yield across whatever field they happen to be in. That data is the inception for a winter’s worth of work, in the Northern hemisphere, that a farmer goes through to assess their yield and understand what changes they should make in the next season that might optimize that yield even further.
They might have areas within the field that they go into and know they need to change seeding density, or they need to change crop type, or they need to change how much nutrients they provide in the next season. And all of those decisions are going through their head because they [have] to seed in December, they have to order their nutrients in late winter. They’re making those plans based upon that initial dataset of harvest information.
And then they get into the field in the spring, to your point, with a tractor and a planter, and that tractor and planter are taking the prescription that the farmer developed with the yield data that they took from the previous harvest. They’re using that prescription to apply changes to that field in real time as they’re going through the field, with the existing data from the yield map and the data in real time that they’re collecting with the tractor to modify things like seeding rate, and fertilizer rate and all of those things in order to make sure that they’re minimizing the inputs to the operation while at the same time working to maximize the output.
That data is then going into the cloud, and they’re referencing it. For example, that track the tractor and the planter took through the field is being used to inform the sprayer. When the sprayer goes into the field after emergence, when the crops come out of the ground, it’s being used to inform that sprayer what the optimal path is to drive through the field in order to spray only what needs to be sprayed and no more, to damage the crop the least amount possible, all in an effort to optimize that productivity at the end of the year, to make that yield map that is [a] report card at the end of the year for the farmer, to make that turn out to have a better grade.
That’s a lot of data. Who collects it? Is John Deere collecting it? Can I hire a third-party SaaS software company to manage that data for me? How does that part work?
A significant amount of that data is collected on the fly while the machines are in the field, and it’s collected, in the case of Deere machines, by Deere equipment running through the field. There are other companies that create the data, and they can be imported into things like the Deere Operations Center so that you have the data from whatever source that you wanted to collect it from. I think the important thing there is historically, it’s been more difficult to get the data off the machine, because of connectivity limitations, into a database that you can actually do something with it.
Today, the disproportionate number of machines in large agriculture are connected. They’re connected through terrestrial cell networks. They’re streaming data bi-directionally to the cloud and back from the cloud. So that data connectivity infrastructure that’s been built out over the last decade has really enabled two-way communication, and it’s taken the friction out of getting the data off of a mobile piece of equipment. So it’s happening seamlessly for that operator. And that’s a benefit, because they can act on it then in more near real time, as opposed to having to wait for somebody to upload data at some point in the future.
Whose data is this? Is it the farmer’s data? Is it John Deere’s data? Is there a terms of service agreement for a combine? How does that work?
Certainly [there is] a terms of service agreement. Our position is pretty simple. It’s the farmer’s data. They control it. So if they want to share it through an API with somebody that is a trusted adviser from their perspective, they have the right to do that. If they don’t want to share it, they don’t have to do that. It is their data to control.
Is it portable? When I say there are “computer problems” here, can my tractor deliver me, for example, an Excel file?
They certainly can export the data in form factors that are convenient for them, and they do. Spreadsheet math is still routinely done on the farm, and then [they can] utilize the spreadsheet to do some basic data analytics if they want. I would tell you, though, that what’s happening is that the amount of data that is being collected and curated and made available to them to draw insights from is so massive that while you can still use spreadsheets to manipulate some of it, it’s just not tractable in all cases. So that’s why we’re building functionality into things like the Operations Center to help do data analytics and serve up insights to growers.
It’s their data. They can choose to look at the insights or not, but we can serve those insights up to them, because the data analysis part of this problem is becoming significantly larger because the datasets are so complex and large, not to mention the fact that you’ve got more data coming in all the time. Different sensors are being applied. We can measure different things. There [are] unique pieces of information that are coming in and routinely building to overall ecosystems of data that they have at their disposal.
We’ve talked a lot about the feedback loop of data with the machinery in particular. There’s one really important component to this, which is the seeds. There are a lot of seed manufacturers out in the world. They want this data. They have GMO seeds, they can adjust the seeds to different locations. Where do they come into the mix?
The data, from our perspective, is the farmer’s data. They’re the ones who are controlling the access to it. So if they want to share their data with someone, they have that ability to do it. And they do today. They’ll share their yield map with whoever their local seed salesman is and try to optimize the seed variety for the next planting season in the spring.
So that data exists. It’s not ours, so we’re not at liberty to share it with seed companies, and we don’t. It has to come through the grower because it’s their productivity data. They’re the ones that have the opportunity to share it. We don’t.
You do have a lot of data. Maybe you can’t share it widely, but you can aggregate it. You must have a very unique view of climate change. You must see where the foodways are moving, where different kinds of crops are succeeding and failing. What is your view of climate change, given the amount of data that you’re taking in?
The reality is for us that we’re hindered in answering that question by the recency of the data. So, broad-scale data acquisition from production agriculture is really only a five- to 10-year-old phenomenon. So the datasets are getting richer. They’re getting better.
We have the opportunity to see trends in that data across the datasets that exist today, but I think it’s too early. I don’t think the data is mature enough yet for us to be able to draw any conclusions from a climate change perspective with respect to the data that we have.
The other thing that I’ll add is that the data intensity is not universal across the globe. So if you think of climate change on a global perspective, we’ve got a lot of data for North America, a fair amount of data that gets taken by growers in Europe, a little bit in South America, but it’s not rich enough across the global agricultural footprint for us to be able to make any sort of statements about how climate change is impacting it right now.
Is that something you’re interested in doing?
Yes. I couldn’t predict when, but I think that the data will eventually be rich enough for insights to be drawn from it. It’s just not there yet.
Do you think about doing a fully electric tractor? Is that in your technology roadmap, that you’ve got to get rid of these diesel engines?
You’ve got to be interested in EVs right now. And the answer is yes. Whether it’s a tractor or whether it’s some other product in our product line, alternative forms of propulsion, alternative forms of power are definitely something that we’re thinking about. We’ve done it in the past with, I would say, hybrid solutions like a diesel engine driving an electric generator, and then the rest of the machine being electrified from a propulsion perspective.
But we’re just getting to the point now where battery technology, lithium-ion technology, is power-dense enough for us to see it starting to creep into our portfolio. Probably from the bottom up. Lower power density applications first, before it gets into some of the very large production ag equipment that we’ve talked about today.
What’s the timeline to a fully EV combine, do you think?
I think it’ll be a long time for a combine.
I picked the biggest thing I could, basically.
It has got to run 14, 15, 16 hours per day. It’s got a very short window to run in. You can’t take all day to charge it. Those sorts of problems, they’re not insurmountable. They’re just not solved by anything that’s on the roadmap today, from a lithium-ion perspective, anyway.
You and I are talking two days after Apple had its developers’ conference. Apple famously sells hardware, software, services, as an integrated solution. Do you think of John Deere’s equipment as integrated suites of hardware, software, and services, or is it a piece of hardware that spits off data, and then maybe you can buy our services, or maybe buy somebody else’s services?
I think it’s most efficient when we think of it collectively as a system. It doesn’t have to be that way, and one of the differences I would say to an Apple comparison would be the life of the product, the iron product in our case, the tractor or the combine, is measured in decades. It may be in service for a very long time, and so we have to take that into account as we think about the technology [and] apps that we put on top of it, which have a much shorter shelf life. They’re two, three, four, five years, and then they’re obsolete, and the next best thing has come along.
We have to think about the discontinuity that occurs between product buy cycles as a consequence of that. I do think it’s most efficient to think of it all together. It isn’t always necessarily that way. There are lots of farmers that run multi-colored fleets. It’s not Deere only. So we have to be able to provide an opportunity for them to get data off of whatever their product is into the environment that best enables them to make good decisions from it.
Is that how you characterize the competition, multi-colored fleets?
Absolutely, for sure. I would love the world to be completely [John Deere] green, but it’s not quite that way.
On my way to school every day in Wisconsin growing up, I drove by a Case plant. They’re red. John Deere is famously green, Case is red, International Harvester is yellow.
Yep. Case is red, Deere is green, and then there’s a rainbow of colors outside of those two for sure.
Who are your biggest competitors? And are they adopting the same business model as you? Is this an iOS versus Android situation, or is it widely different?
Our traditional competitors in the ag space, no surprise, you mentioned one of them. Case New Holland is a great example. AGCO would be another. I think everybody’s headed down the path of precision agriculture. [It’s] the term that is ubiquitous for where the industry’s headed.
I’m going to paint a picture for you: It’s this idea of enabling each individual plant in production agriculture to be tended to by a master gardener. The master gardener is in this case probably some AI that is enabling a farmer to know exactly what that particular plant needs, when it needs it, and then our equipment provides them the capability of executing on that plan that master gardener has created for that plant on an extremely large scale.
You’re talking about, in the case of corn, for example, 50,000 plants per acre, so a master gardener taking care of 50,000 plants for every acre of corn. That’s where this is headed, and you can picture the data intensity of that. Two hundred million acres of corn ground, times 50,000 plants per acre; each one of those plants is creating data, and that’s the enormity of the scale of production agriculture when you start to get to this plant-by-plant management basis.
Let’s talk about the enormity of the data and the amount of computation — that’s in tension with how long the equipment lasts. Are you upgrading the computers and the tractors every year, or are you just trying to pull the data into your cloud where you can do the intense computation you want to do?
It’s a combination of both, I would tell you. There are components within the vehicles that do get upgraded from time to time. The displays and the servers that operate in the vehicles do go through upgrade cycles within the existing fleet.
There’s enough appetite, Nilay, for technology in agriculture that we’re also seeing older equipment get updated with new technology. So it’s not uncommon today for a customer who’s purchased a John Deere planter that might be 10 years old to want the latest technology on that planter. And instead of buying a new planter, they might buy the upgrade kit for that planter that allows them to have the latest technology on the existing planter that they own. That sort of stuff is happening all the time across the industry.
I would tell you, though, that what is maybe different now versus 10 years ago is the amount of computation that happens in the cloud, to serve up this enormity of data in bite-sized forms and in digestible pieces that actually can be acted upon for the grower. Very little of that is done on-board machines today. Most of that is done off-board.
We cover rural broadband very heavily. There’s some real-time data collection happening here, but what you’re really talking about is that at the end of a session you’ve got a big asynchronous dataset. You want to send it off somewhere, have some computation done to it, and brought back to you so you can react to it.
What is your relationship to the connectivity providers, or to the Biden administration, that is trying to roll out a broadband plan? Are you pushing to get better networks for the next generation of your products, or are you kind of happy with where things are now?
We’re pro-rural broadband, and in particular newer technologies, 5G as an example. And it’s not just for agricultural purposes, let’s just be frank. There’s a ton of benefits that accrue to a society that’s connected with a sufficient network to do things like online schooling, in particular, coming through the pandemic that we’re in the midst of, and hopefully on the tail end of here. I think that’s just highlighted the use cases for connectivity in rural locations.
Agriculture is but one of those, but there’s some really cool feature unlocks that better connectivity, both in terms of coverage and in terms of bandwidth and latency, provide in agriculture. I’ll give you an example. You think of 5G and the ability to get to incredibly low latency numbers. It allows us to do some things from a computational perspective on the edge of the network that today we don’t have the capability to do. We either do it on-board the machine, or we don’t do it at all. So things like serving up the real-time location of where a farmer’s combine is, instead of having to route that data all the way to the cloud and then back to a handheld device that the farmer might have, wouldn’t it be great if we could do that math on the edge and just ping tower to tower and serve it back down and do it really, really quickly. Those are the sorts of use cases that open up when you get to talking about not just connectivity rurally, but 5G specifically, that are pretty exciting.
Are the networks in place to do all the things you want to do?
Globally, the answer is no. Within the US and Canadian markets, coverage improves every day. There are towers that are going up every day and we are working with our terrestrial cell coverage partners across the globe to expand coverage, and they’re responding. They see, generally, the need, in particular with respect to agriculture, for rural connectivity. They understand the power that it can provide [and] the efficiency that it can derive into food production globally. So they are incentivized to do that. And they’ve been good partners in this space. That said, they recognize that there are still gaps and there’s still a lot of ground to cover, literally in some cases, with connectivity solutions in rural locations.
You mentioned your partners. The parallels to a smartphone here are strong. Do you have different chipsets for AT&T and Verizon? Can you activate your AT&T plan right from the screen in the tractor? How does that work?
AT&T is our dominant partner in North America. That is our go-to, primarily from a coverage perspective. They’re the partner that we’ve chosen that I think serves our customers the best in the most locations.
Do you get free HBO Max if you sign up?
[laughs] Unfortunately, no.
They’re putting it everywhere. You have no idea.
I look at the broadband gap everywhere. You mentioned schooling. We cover these very deep consumer needs. On the flip side, you need to run a lot of fiber to make 5G work, especially with the low latency that you’re talking about. You can’t have too many nodes in the way. Do you support millimeter wave 5G on a farm?
Yeah, it is something we’ve looked at. It’s intriguing. How you scale it is the question. I think if we could crack that nut, it would be really interesting.
Just for listeners, an example of millimeter wave if you’re unfamiliar — you’re standing on just the right street corner in New York City, you could get gigabit speeds to a phone. You cross the street, and it goes away. That does not seem tenable on a farm.
That’s right. Not all data needs to be transmitted at the same rate. Not to cover the broad acreage, but you can envision a case where potentially, when you come into range of millimeter wave, you dump a bunch of data all at once. And then when you’re out of range, you’re still collecting data and transmitting it slower perhaps. But having the ability to have millimeter wave type of bandwidth is pretty intriguing for being able to take opportunistic advantage of it when it’s available.
What’s something you want to do that the network isn’t there for you to do yet?
I think that the biggest piece is just a coverage answer from my perspective. We intentionally buffer data on the vehicle in places where we don’t have great coverage in order to wait until that machine has coverage, in order to send the data. But the reality is that means that a grower is waiting in some cases 30 minutes or an hour until the data is synced up in the cloud and something actionable has been done with it and it’s back down to them. And by that point in time, the decision has already been made. It’s not useful because it’s time sensitive. I think that’s probably the biggest gap that we have today. It’s not universal. It happens in pockets and in geographies, but where it happens, the need is real. And those growers don’t benefit as much as growers that do have areas of good coverage.
Is that improvement going as fast as you’d like? Is that a place where you’re saying to the Biden administration, whoever it might be, “Hey, we’re missing out on opportunities because there aren’t the networks we need to go faster.”
It is not going as fast as we would like, full stop. We should be moving faster in that space. Just to tease the thought out a little bit, maybe it’s not just terrestrial cell. Maybe it’s Starlink, maybe it’s a satellite-based type of infrastructure that provides that coverage for us in the future. But it’s certainly not moving at a pace that’s rapid enough for us, given the appetite for data that growers have and what they’ve seen as an ability for that data to significantly optimize their operations.
Have you talked to the Starlink folks?
We have.It’s super interesting. It’s an intriguing idea. The question for us is a mobile one. All of our devices are mobile. Tractors are driving around a field, combines are driving around a field. You get into questions around, what does the receiver need to look like in order to make that work? It’s an interesting idea at this point. I’m ever the optimist, glass-half-full sort of person. I think it’s conceivable that in the not too distant future, that could be a very viable option for some of these locations that are underserved with terrestrial connectivity today.
Walk me through the pricing model of a tractor. These things are very expensive. They’re hundreds of thousands of dollars. What is the recurring cost for an AT&T plan necessary to run that tractor? What is the recurring cost for your data services that you provide? How does that all break down?
Our data services are free today, interestingly enough. Free in the sense [of] the hosting of the data in the cloud and the serving up of that data through Operations Center. If you buy a piece of connected Deere equipment, that service is part of your purchase. I’ll just put it that way.
The recurring expense on the consumer side of things for the connectivity is not unlike what you would experience for a cell phone plan. It’s pretty similar. The difference is for large growers, it’s not just a single cell phone.
They might have 10, 15, 20 devices that are all connected. So we do what we can to make sure that the overhead associated with all of those different connected devices is minimized, but it’s not unlike what you’d experience with an iPhone or an Android device.
Do you have large growers in pockets where the connectivity is just so bad, they’ve had to resort to other means?
We have a multitude of ways of getting data off of mobile equipment. Cell is but one. We’re also able to take it off with Wi-Fi, if you can find a hotspot that you can connect to. Growers also routinely use a USB stick, when all else fails, that works regardless. So we make it possible no matter what their connectivity situation is to get the data off.
But to the point we already talked about, the less friction you’ve got in that system to get the data off, the more data you end up pushing. The more data you push, the more insights you can generate. The more insights you generate, the more optimal your operation is. So to the extent that you don’t have cell connectivity, we do see the intensity of the data usage, it tracks with connectivity.
So if your cloud services are free with the purchase of a connected tractor, is that built into the price or the lease agreement of the tractor for you on your P&L? You’re just saying, “We’re giving this away for free, but baking it into the price.”
Can you buy a tractor without that stuff for cheaper?
You can buy products that aren’t connected that do not have a telematics gateway or the cell connection, absolutely. It is uncommon, especially in large ag. I would hesitate to throw a number at you at what the take rate is, but it’s standard equipment in all of our large agricultural products. That said, you can still get it without that if you need to.
How long until these products just don’t have steering wheels and seats and Sirius radios in them? How long until you have a fully autonomous farm?
I love that question. [With] a fully autonomous farm, you’ve got to draw some boundaries around it in order to make it digestible. I think we could have fully autonomous tractors in low single digit years. I’ll leave it a little bit gray just to let the mind wander a little bit.
Taking the cab completely off the tractor, I think, is a ways away, only because the tractor gets used for lots of things that it may not be programmed for, from an autonomous perspective, to do. It’s sort of a Swiss Army knife in a farm environment. But that operatorless operation in, say, fall tillage or spring planting, we’re right on the doorstep of that. We’re knocking on the door of being able to do it.
It’s due to some really interesting technology that’s come together all in one place at one time. It’s the confluence of high capability-compute onboard machines. So we’re putting GPUs on machines today to do vision processing that would blow your mind. Nvidia GPUs are not just for the gaming community or the autonomous car community. They’re happening on tractors and sprayers and things too. So that’s one stream of technology that’s coming together with advanced algorithms. Machine learning, reinforcement learning, convolutional neural networks, all of that going into being able to mimic the human sight capability from a mechanical and computational perspective. That’s come together to give us the ability to start seriously considering taking an operator out of the cab of the tractor.
One of the things that is different, though, for agriculture versus maybe the on-highway autonomous cars, is that tractors don’t just go from point A to point B. Their mission in life is not just to transport. It’s to do productive work. They’re pulling a tillage tool behind them or pulling a planter behind them planting seed. So we not only have to be able to automate the driving of the tractor, but we have to automate the function that it’s doing as well, and make sure that it’s doing a great job of doing the tillage operation that normally the farmer would be observing in the cab of the tractor. Now we have to do that and be able to ascertain whether or not that job quality that’s happening as a consequence of the tractor going through the field is meeting the requirements or not.
What’s the challenge there?
I think it’s the variety of jobs. In this case, let’s take the tractor example again — it’s not only is it doing the tillage right with this particular tillage tool, but a farmer might use three or four different tillage tools in their operation. They all have different use cases. They all require different artificial intelligence models to be trained and to be validated. So scaling out across all of those different conceivable operations, I think is the biggest challenge.
You mentioned GPUs. GPUs are hard to get right now.
It’s impacting us. Weekly, I’m in conversations with semiconductor manufacturers trying to get the parts that we need. It is an ongoing battle. We had thought probably six or seven months ago, like everybody else, that it would be relatively short-term. But I think we’re into this for the next 12 to 18 months. I think we’ll come out of it as capacity comes online, but it’s going to take a little while before that happens.
I’ve talked to a few people about the chip shortage now. The best consensus I’ve gotten is that the problem isn’t at the state of the art. The problem is with older process nodes — five or 10-year-old technology. Is that where the problem is for you as well or are you thinking about moving beyond that?
It’s most acute with older tech. So we’ve got 16-bit chipsets that we’re still working with on legacy controllers that are a pain point. But that said, we’ve also got some really recent, modern stuff that is also a pain point. I was where your head is at three months ago. And then in the three months since, we’ve felt the pain everywhere.
When you say 18 months from now, is that you think there’s going to be more supply or you think the demand is going to tail off?
Supply is certainly coming online. [The] semiconductor industry is doing the right thing. They’re trying to bring capacity online to meet the demand. I would argue it’s just a classic bullwhip effect that’s happened in the marketplace. So I think that will happen. I think there’s certainly some behavior in the industry at the moment around what the demand side is. That’s made it hard for semiconductor manufacturers to understand what real demand is because there’s a panic situation in some respects in the marketplace at the moment.
That said, I think it’s clear there’s only one direction that semiconductor volume is going, and it’s going up. Everything is going to demand it moving forward and demand more of it. So I think once we work through the next 12 to 18 months and work through this sort of immediate and near-term issue, the semiconductor industry is going to have a better handle on things, but capacity has to go up in order to meet the demand. There’s no doubt about it. A lot of that demand is real.
Are you thinking, “Man, I have these 16-bit systems. We should rearchitect things to be more modular, to be more modern, and faster,” or are you saying, “Supply will catch up”?
No, very much the former. I would say two things. One, more prevalent in supply for sure. And then the second one is, easier to change when we need to change. There’s some tech debt that we’re continuing to battle against and pay off over time. And it’s times like these when it rises to the surface and you wish you’d made decisions a little bit differently 10 years ago or five years ago.
My father-in-law, my wife’s cousins, are all farmers up and down. A lot of John Deere hats in my family. I texted them all and asked what they wanted to know. All of them came back and said “right to repair” down the line. Every single one of them. That’s what they asked me to ask you about.
I set up this whole conversation to talk about these things as computers. We understand the problems of computers. It is notable to me that John Deere and Apple had the same effective position on right to repair, which is, we would prefer if you didn’t do it and you let us do it. But there’s a lot of pushback. There are right-to-repair bills in an ever-growing number of states. How do you see that playing out right now? People want to repair their tractors. It is getting harder and harder to do it because they’re computers and you control the parts.
It’s a complex topic, first and foremost. I think the first thing I would tell you is that we have and remain committed to enabling customers to repair the products that they buy. The reality is that 98 percent of the repairs that customers want to do on John Deere products today, they can do. There’s nothing that prohibits them from doing them. Their wrenches are the same size as our wrenches. That all works. If somebody wants to go repair a diesel engine in a tractor, they can tear it down and fix it. We make the service manuals available. We make the parts available, we make the how-to available for them to tear it down to the ground and build it back up again.
That is not really what I’ve heard. I hear that a sensor goes off, the tractor goes into what people call “limp mode.” They have to bring it into a service center. They need a John Deere-certified laptop to pull the codes and actually do that work.
The diagnostic trouble codes are pushed out onto the display. The customer can see what those diagnostic trouble codes are. They may not understand or be able to connect what that sensor issue is with a root cause. There may be an underlying root cause that’s not immediately obvious to the customer based upon the fault code, but the fault code information is there. There is expertise that exists within the John Deere dealer environment, because they’ve seen those issues over time that allows them to understand what the probable cause is for that particular issue. That said, anybody can go buy the sensor. Anybody can go replace it. That’s just a reality.
There is, though, this 2 percent-ish of the repairs that occur on equipment today [that] involve software. And to your point, they’re computer environments that are driving around on wheels. So there is a software component to them. Where we differ with the right-to-repair folks is that software, in many cases, it’s regulated. So let’s take the diesel engine example. We are required, because it’s a regulated emissions environment, to make sure that diesel engine performs at a certain emission output, nitrous oxide, particulate matter, etc., and so on. Modifying software changes that. It changes the output characteristics of the emissions of the engine and that’s a regulated device. So we’re pretty sensitive to changes that would impact that. And disproportionately, those are software changes. Like going in and changing governor gain scheduling, for example, on a diesel engine would have a negative consequence on the emissions that [an] engine produces.
The same argument would apply in brake-by-wire and steer-by-wire. Do you really want a tractor going down the road with software on it that has been modified for steering or modified for braking in some way that might have a consequence that nobody thought of? We know the rigorous nature of testing that we go through in order to push software out into a production landscape. We want to make sure that that product is as safe and reliable and performs to the intended expectations of the regulatory environment that we operate in.
But people are doing it anyway. That’s the real issue here. Again, these are computer problems. This is what I hear from Apple about repairing your own iPhone. Here’s the device with all your data on it that’s on the network. Do you really want to run unsupported software on it? The valence of the debate feels the same to me.
At the same time though, is it their tractor or is it your tractor? Shouldn’t I be allowed to run whatever software I want on my computer?
I think the difference with the Apple argument is that the iPhone isn’t driving down the road at 20 miles an hour with oncoming traffic coming at it. There’s a seriousness of the change that you could make to a product. These things are large. They cost a lot of money. It’s a 40,000-pound tractor going down the road at 20 miles an hour. Do you really want to expose untested, unplanned, unknown introductions of software into a product like that that’s out in the public landscape?
But they were doing it mechanically before. Making it computerized allows you to control that behavior in a way that you cannot on a purely mechanical tractor. I know there are a lot of farmers who did dumb stuff with their mechanical tractors and that was just part of the ecosystem.
Sure. I grew up on one of those. I think the difference there is that the system is so much more complicated today, in part because of software, that it’s not always evident immediately if I make a change here, what it’s going to produce over there. When it was all mechanical, I knew, if I changed the size of the tires or the steering linkage geometry, what was going to happen. I could physically see it and the system was self-contained because it was a mechanical-only system.
I think when we’re talking about a modern piece of equipment and the complexity of the system, it’s a ripple effect. You don’t know what a change that you make over here is going to impact over there any longer. It’s not intuitively obvious to somebody who would make a change in isolation to software, for example, over here. It is a tremendously complex problem. It’s one that we’ve got a tremendously large organization that’s responsible for understanding that complete system and making sure that when the product is produced, that it is reliable and it is safe and it does meet emissions and all of those things.
I look at some of the coverage and there are farmers who are downloading software of unknown provenance that can hack around some of the restrictions. Some of that software appears to be coming from groups in the Ukraine. They’re now using other software to get around the restrictions that, in some cases, could make it even worse, and lead to other unintended consequences, whereas providing the opportunities or making that more official might actually solve some of those problems in a more straightforward way.
I think we’ve taken steps to try to help. One of those is customer service. Service Advisor is the John Deere software that a dealership would use in order to diagnose and troubleshoot equipment. We’ve made available the customer version of Service Advisor as well in order to provide some of the ability for them to have insights — to your point about fault codes before — insights into what are those issues, and what can I learn about them as a customer? How might I go about fixing them? There have been efforts underway in order to try to bridge some of that gap to the extent possible.
We are, though, not in a position where we would ever condone or support a third-party software being put on products of ours, because we just don’t know what the consequences of that are going to be. It’s not something that we’ve tested. We don’t know what it might make the equipment do or not do. And we don’t know what the long-term impacts of that are.
I feel like a lot of people listening to the show own a car. I’ve got a pickup truck. I can go buy a device that will upload a new tune for my Ford pickup truck’s engine. Is that something you can do to a John Deere tractor?
There are third-party outfits that will do exactly that to a John Deere engine. Yep.
But can you do that yourself?
I suspect if you had the right technical knowledge, you could probably figure out a way to do it yourself. If a third-party company figured it out, there is a way for a consumer to do it too.
Where’s the line? Where do you think your control of the system ends and the consumer’s begins? I ask that because I think that might be the most important question in computing right now, just broadly across every kind of computer in our lives. At some point, the manufacturer is like, “I’m still right here with you and I’m putting a line in front of you.” Where’s your line?
We talked about the corner cases, the use cases I think that for us are the lines. They’re around the regulated environment from an emissions perspective. We’ve got a responsibility when we sell a piece of equipment to make sure that it’s meeting the regulatory environment that we sold it into. And then I think the other one is in and around safety, critical systems, things that they can impact others in the environment that, again, in a regulated fashion, we have a responsibility to produce a product that meets the requirements that the regulatory environment requires.
Not only that, but I think there’s a societal responsibility, frankly, that we make sure that the product is as safe as it can be for as long as it can be in operation. And those are where I think we spend a lot of time talking about what amounts to a very small part of the repair of a product. The statistics are real: 98 percent of the repairs that happen on a product can be done by a customer today. So we’re talking about a very small number of them, but they tend to be around those sort of sensitive use cases, regulatory and safety.
Right to Repair legislation is very bipartisan. You’re talking about big commercial operations in a lot of states. It’s America. It’s apple pie and corn farmers. They have a lot of political weight and they’re able to make a very bipartisan push, which is pretty rare in this country right now. Is that a signal you see as, “Oh man, if we don’t get this right, the government is coming for our products?”
I think the government’s certainly one voice in this, and it’s stemming from feedback from some customers. Obviously you’ve done your own bit of work across the farmers in your family. So it is a topic that is being discussed for sure. And we’re all in favor of that discussion, by the way. I think that what we want to make sure of is that it’s an objective discussion. There are ramifications across all dimensions of this. We want to make sure that those are well understood, because it’s such an important topic and has significant enough consequences, so we want to make sure we get it right. The unintended consequences of this are not small. They will impact the industry, some of them in a negative way. And so we just want to make sure that the discussion is objective.
The other signal I’d ask you about is that prices of pre-computer tractors are skyrocketing. Maybe you see that a different way, but I’m looking at some coverage that says old tractors, pre-1990 tractors, are selling for double what they were a year or two ago. There are incredible price hikes on these old tractors. And that the demand is there because people don’t want computers in their tractors. Is that a market signal to you, that you should change the way your products work? Or are you saying, “Well, eventually those tractors will die and you won’t have a choice except to buy one of the new products”?
I think the benefits that accrue from technology are significant enough for consumers. We see this happening with the consumer vote by dollar, by what they purchase. Consumers are continuing to purchase higher levels of technology as we go on. So while yes, the demand for older tractors has gone up, in part it’s because the demand for tractors has gone up completely. Our own technology solutions, we’ve seen upticks in take rates year over year over year over year. So if people were averse to technology, I don’t think you’d see that. At some point we have to recognize that the benefits that technology brings outweigh the downsides of the technology. I think that’s just this part of the technology adoption curve that we’re all on.
That’s the same conversation around smartphones. I get it with smartphones. Everyone has them in their pocket. They collect all this personal data. You may want a gatekeeper there because you don’t have a sophisticated user base.
Your customers are very self-interested, commercial customers.
Do you think you have a different kind of responsibility than, I don’t know, the Xbox Live team has to the Xbox Live community? In terms of data, in terms of control, in terms of relinquishing control of the product once it’s sold.
It certainly is a different market. It’s a different customer base. It’s a different clientele. To your point, they are dependent upon the product for their livelihood. So we do everything we can to make sure that product is reliable. It produces when it needs to produce in order to make sure that their businesses are productive and sustainable. I do think the biggest difference from the consumer market that you referenced to our market is the technology life cycle that we’re on.
You brought up tractors that are 20 years old that don’t have a ton of computers on-board versus what we have today. But what we have today is significantly more efficient than what we had 20 years ago. The tractors that you referenced are still in the market. People are still using them. They’re still putting them to work, productive work. In fact, on my family farm, they’re still being used for productive work. And I think that’s what’s different between the consumer market and the ag market. We don’t have a disposable product. You don’t just pick it up and throw it away. We have to be able to plan for that technology use across decades as opposed to maybe single-digit years.
In terms of the benefits of technology and selling that through, one of the other questions I got from the folks in my family was about the next thing that technology can enable. It seems like the equipment can’t physically get much bigger. The next thing to tackle is speed — making things faster for increased productivity.
Is that how you think about selling the benefits of technology — now the combine is as big as it can be, and it’s efficient at this massive scale. Is the next step to make it more efficient in terms of speed?
You’ve seen the industry trend that way. You look at planting as a great example. Ten years ago, we planted at three miles an hour. Today, we plant at 10 miles an hour. And what enabled that was technology. It was electric motors on row units that can react really, really quickly, that are highly controllable and can place seed really, really accurately, right? I think that’s the trend. Wisconsin’s a great place to talk about it. Whether it’s a row crop farm, there’s a small window in the spring, a couple of weeks, where it’s optimal to get those crops in the ground. And so it’s an insurance policy to be able to go faster because the weather may not be great for both of those weeks that you’ve got that are optimal planning weeks. And so you may only have three days or four days in that 10-day window in order to plant all your crops.
And speed is one way to make sure that that happens. Size and the width of the machine is the other. I would agree that we’ve gotten to the point where there’s very little opportunity left in going bigger, and so going faster and, I would argue, going more intelligently, is the way that you improve productivity in the future.
So we’ve talked about a huge set of responsibilities, everything from the physical mechanical design of the machinery to building cloud services, to geopolitics. What is your decision-making process? What’s your framework for how you make decisions?
I think at the root of it, we try to drive everything back to a customer and what we can do to make that customer more productive and more sustainable. And that helps us triage. Of all the great ideas that are out there, all the things that we could work on, what are the things that can move the needle for a customer in their operation as much as possible? And I think that grounding in the customer and the customer’s business is important because, fundamentally, our business is dependent upon the farmer’s business. If the farmer does well, we do well. If the farmer doesn’t do well, we don’t do well. We’re intertwined. There’s a connection there that you can’t and shouldn’t separate.
So driving our decision-making process towards having an intimate knowledge of the customer’s business and what we can do to make their business better frames everything we do.
What’s next for John Deere? What is the short term future for precision farming? Give me a five-year prediction.
I’m super excited about what we’re calling “sense and act.” “See and spray” is the first down payment on that. It’s the ability to create, in software and through electronic and mechanical devices, the human sense of sight, and then act on it. So we’re separating, in this case, weeds from useful crop, and we’re only spraying the weeds. That reduces herbicide use within a field. It reduces the cost for the farmer, input cost into their operation. It’s a win-win-win. And it is step one in the sense-and-act trajectory or sense-and-act runway that we’re on.
There’s a lot more opportunity for us in agriculture to do more sensing and acting, and doing that in an optimal way so that we’re not painting the same picture across a complete field, but doing it more prescriptively and acting more prescriptively in areas of a field that demand different things. I think that sense-and-act type of vision is the roadmap that we’re on. There’s a ton of opportunity in there. It is technology-intensive because you’re talking sensors, you’re talking computers, and you’re talking acting with precision. All of those things require fundamental shifts in technology from where we’re at today.
As well as collecting your data, Chrome also gives Google a huge amount of control over how the web works
Despite a poor reputation for privacy, Google’s Chrome browser continues to dominate. The web browser has around 65 per cent market share and two billion people are regularly using it. Its closest competitor, Apple’s Safari, lags far behind with under 20 per cent market share. That’s a lot of power, even before you consider Chrome’s data collection practices.
Is Google too big and powerful, and do you need to ditch Chrome for good? Privacy experts say yes. Chrome is tightly integrated with Google’s data gathering infrastructure, including services such as Google search and Gmail – and its market dominance gives it the power to help set new standards across the web. Chrome is one of Google’s most powerful data-gathering tools.
Google is currently under fire from privacy campaigners including rival browser makers and regulators for changes in Chrome that will spell the end of third-party cookies, the trackers that follow you as you browse. Although there are no solid plans for Europe yet, Google is planning to replace cookies with its own ‘privacy preserving’ tracking tech called FLoC, which critics say will give the firm even more power at the expense of its competitors due to the sheer scale of Chrome’s user base.
Chrome’s hefty data collection practices are another reason to ditch the browser. According to Apple’s iOS privacy labels, Google’s Chrome app can collect data including your location, search and browsing history, user identifiers and product interaction data for “personalisation” purposes. Google says this gives you the ability to enable features such as the option to save your bookmarks and passwords to your Google Account. But unlike rivals Safari, Microsoft’s Edge and Firefox, Chrome links this data to devices and individuals.
Although Chrome legitimately needs to handle browsing data, it can siphon off a large amount of information about your activities and transmit it to Google, says Rowenna Fielding, founder and director of privacy consultancy Miss IG Geek. “If you’re using Chrome to browse the internet, even in private mode, Google is watching everything you do online, all the time. This allows Google to build up a detailed and sophisticated picture about your personality, interests, vulnerabilities and triggers.”
When you sync your Google accounts to Chrome, the data slurping doesn’t stop there. Information from other Google-owned products including its email service Gmail and Google search can be combined to form a scarily accurate picture. Chrome data can be added to your geolocation history from Google Maps, the metadata from your Gmail usage, your social graph – who you interact with, both on and offline – the apps you use on your Android phone, and the products you buy with Google Pay. “That creates a very clear picture of who you are and how you live your life,” Fielding says.
As well as gathering information about your online and offline purchases, data from Google Pay can be used “in the same way as data from other Google services,” says Fielding. “This is not just what you buy, but also your location, device contacts and information, and the links those details provide so you can be identified and profiled across multiple datasets.”
Google’s power goes even further than its own browser market share. Competitor browsers such as Microsoft’s Edge are based on the same engine, Chromium. “So under the hood they are still a form of Chrome”, says Sean Wright, an independent security researcher.
Google’s massive market share has allowed the internet giant to develop web standards such as AMP in Google mobile search, which publishers must use in order to appear at the top of search results. And more recently, Chrome’s FLoC effectively gives Google control over the ad tracking tech that will replace third-party cookies – although this is being developed in the open and with feedback from other developers.
Google’s power allows it to set the direction of the industry, says Wright. “Some of those changes are good, including the move to make HTTPS encryption a default, but others are more self-serving, such as the FLoC proposal.”
Google says its Ads products do not access synced Chrome browsing history, other than for preventing spam and fraud. The firm outlines that the iOS privacy labels represent the maximum categories of data that can be gathered, and what is actually collected depends on the features you use in the app, and how you configure your settings. It also claims its open-source FLoC API is privacy-focused and will not give Google Ads products special privileges or access.
Google says privacy and security “have always been core benefits of the Chrome browser”. A Google spokesperson highlighted the Safe Browsing features that protect against threats such as phishing and malware, as well as additional controls to help you manage your information in Chrome. In recent years the company has introduced more ways you can control your data. “Chrome offers helpful options to keep your data in sync across devices, and you control what activity gets saved to your Google Account if you choose to sign in,” the spokesperson says.
But that doesn’t change the level of data collection possible, or the fact that Google has so much sway, simply through its market dominance and joined up ad-driven ecosystem. “When you are a company that has the majority share of browsers and internet search, you suddenly have a huge amount of power,” says Matthew Gribben, a former GCHQ cybersecurity consultant. “When every web developer and SEO expert in the world needs to pander to these whims, the focus becomes on making sites work well for Google at the expense of everything else.”
And as long as people use Chrome and other services – many of which are, admittedly, more user friendly than those of rivals – then Google’s power shows no signs of diminishing. Chrome provides Google with “enormous amounts of behavioural and demographic data, control over people’s browsing experience, a platform for shaping the web to Google’s own advantage, and brand ‘capture’”, Fielding says. “When people’s favourite tools, games and sites only work with Chrome, they are reluctant to switch to an alternative.”
In theory, competition and data protection laws should provide the tools to keep Google from getting out of control, says Fielding. But in practice, “that doesn’t seem to be working for various reasons – including disparities of wealth and power between Google and national regulators”. Fielding adds that Google is also useful to many governments and economies and it is tricky to enforce national laws against a global corporation.
There are steps you can take to lock down your account, such as preventing your browsing data being collected by not syncing Chrome, and turning off third-party cookie tracking. But note that the more features you use in Chrome, the more data Google needs to ensure they can function properly. And as Google’s power and dominance continues to surge, the other option is to ditch Chrome altogether.
If you do decide to ditch Chrome, there are plenty of other feature-rich privacy browser options to consider, including Firefox, Brave and DuckDuckGo, which don’t involve giving Google any of your data.