Future

Is Apple Evil? This Silicon Valley Honeymoon Must End

It is time to start asking harder questions about the world's largest company, both how it runs its business and how it conditions our lives.

What is this giant force that governs our everyday life?
What is this giant force that governs our everyday life?
Philippe Boulet-Gercourt

-Analysis-

NEW YORK — The first Mike is on the left, at the top of the steps by the entrance. The second one is standing just a few meters away.

The first Mike is a painter. He browses around in the Apple Store in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan, looking at the new Apple Watches. "I don't really see the point," he says. "The stopwatch, maybe." The craggy-faced artist is curious, but he's also suspicious. "These things eat us up. They poison our lives."

The second Mike looks to be about 20 years younger. He is clad in the royal blue T-shirt worn by all Apple employees and, based on his facial expression, seems fed up with all the stupid questions he keeps having to answer.

"The Apple Watch has many functions," he says. "I'm not gonna show them all. We’d be here all day." That's a taste of the Apple attitude.

We fiddle with the scrolling wheel, press the screen. Mike the Apple employee puts it around my wrist for a second. "How are you going to convince me I need an Apple Watch?" I ask. "I'm not gonna try," he retorts. "Nobody needs one. It’s just a cool thing to have."

How many people emerged from Apple stores with this new gadget on launch day, April 24? Not as many as predicted. There have been production delays, so except for pre-orders, the shops won't have any stock until June. The million-dollar question, in other words, has yet to be answered: Will Apple’s new creation be a triumph or a flop?

The answer is probably neither. The two million pre-orders are encouraging, but teenagers and young adults don't seem all that excited about the product. Steve Jobs is probably turning over in his grave.

A mountain of money

Everyone everywhere wants to know whether Apple's magic touch can survive the death of company's founder. But there are other questions, in the meantime, that people aren't asking, questions that could or should have been raised a long time ago. Only that we were all too mesmerized by the wizard of Cupertino’s shiny gadgets to care.

What is this giant company that governs our everyday life? How does it manage to influence our every moment — and to such an unbelievable extent? Who are the people hiding behind the impenetrable walls of one of the most secretive companies in the world? And what kind of philosophy do they follow? These are not trivial questions.

Apple has always projected an image of non-conformity that is deeply rooted in 1960s counterculture. It sells itself as a company that abhors bureaucracy and "thinks different," a company that not only wants to sell products but also to make a "significant contribution to society," as CEO Tim Cook recently put it.

But how can it be countercultural when it's grown to be so huge? Apple is the biggest company in the world by market value, representing $727 billion, about twice as much as the second-largest U.S. company, ExxonMobil. In the last three months of 2014, it sold 34,000 iPhones per hour. Over the last four quarters, it has achieved a total turnover of $200 billion and a net profit of $44 billion. It's sitting on a mountain of cash, $180 billion it can deploy at any moment.

Bound to the corporation

These are stunning figures, unprecedented profits. But Apple is far more than just a matter of dollars, and people wouldn’t be so passionate about it if it just sold cars or cookies. Apple has become the fetish of a worldwide middle class that sets itself apart with the status it derives from purchasing these products.

Apple is an overdriving engine of our century. With its minimalist design and the intuitive simplicity of its products, it completely changed our relationship with technology, which used to be only for nerds. This impression of simplicity turned us all into technophiles. It’s an illusion, of course, since these products conceal an amazing complexity and a link far less idealistic than it seems with the company that makes them.

"People who think they understand their products are completely mistaken," says Fred Turner, an associate professor in communications at Stanford University. "All technologies are entry gates that tie us to a corporation, and when I use an iPhone or an iPad, I am nurturing a relationship with Apple. They're using my data."

Our relationship to technology is only one of the many aspects in which Apple is influencing our lives. And it's not even the most important one. The real revolution is how the company has upset our daily lives.

"The Apple design is far more than the exterior shell of its computers and other devices," writes German essayist Thomas Wagner in his book Apple Design. "It also embraces the way we experience a whole series of activities, from working, communicating, presenting, watching movies and videos, listening to music and many more. In this respect, Apple is in line with modernist utopian projects such as Bauhaus."

"Built to know you better"

This is particularly true with the iPhone — and the other smartphones that followed. Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster at Stanford University, describes it as "a portal to cyberspace" that, more than any product ever invented, "blurs the gap between the real world and the virtual world."

The Apple Watch, which includes sensors, pushes the boundaries even further. "We're heading inevitably for a world in which the virtual world and reality overlap completely, a world in which it'll be impossible to say where one begins and the other ends," he explains. "The next step will be objects integrated inside our bodies. Apple is heading in that direction.”

Our smartphones are a first step. They’ve become an extension of our hands that we pick up 221 times per day on average, according to 2014 Tecmark study.


In the Apple world, the words "intimate” and "personal" are repeated like a mantra. But with the Watch, the promotional material goes further. It describes an object that is "built to know you better" and will "reward you for reaching personal fitness milestones." This personalization is not only an individual experience that explains the incredible loyalty of iPhone owners (90% of them don't give up the brand, a Morgan Stanley study suggests) but it also influences our feelings regarding the ultra sensitive issue of data and privacy protection.

With Facebook or Google, which are more "exterior" to our lives than these objects we handle all day long, the fear of seeing our intimacy publicly exposed or our data exploited by unscrupulous companies is greater. But with Apple, which cleverly branded itself as the champion of sacred respect for its users' privacy, we are under the (false) impression of being in a friendly and safe place.


This intimacy with Apple even has political consequences. In May 2013, Tim Cook was summoned to a congressional hearing over Apple's exotic — to say the least — fiscal practices. Far from being grilled, he was welcomed with flattery. “I looooooove Apple,” Sen. Claire McCaskill told him. "It was surreal, an extraordinary moment in the history of American companies," says Margaret O’Mara, a historian and Silicon Valley specialist at the University of Washington.

Faith in technology

Apple's colossal might and influence over our lives would seem problematic if we dared to be a little more critical. Let’s look, for example, at how its products turn users into addicts of something that's designed to be obsolete one or two years after the fix.

The company doesn't deny that people these days spend most of their time glued to the screens of their devices. So what solution does it offer to make our engagement with technology "a little more human?" The Watch, the new gadget that's supposed to free us from the slavery of our iPhones, though we'll need those iPhones to use the Watch.

This headlong rush is obviously encouraged by the Silicon Valley’s almost religious faith in technology, the belief that technical innovation can solve all problems, even the ones it creates. But it's also a convenient way to dodge the issue, and a typical move for Apple.

Apple likes to show off as a company that's respectful of culture, values and ethics — when it suits them. For instance, Tim Cook’s intervention in the debate about anti-gay legislation in Indiana largely contributed to the bill being dropped. But on many other issues, like the place technology holds in our lives or that of economic giants in our societies, Apple is strangely quiet and conformist. In many respects, its behavior is even diametrically opposed to the exceptionalism it claims to embody.

Ben Farrell, an Australian middle manager who recently resigned from Apple, made the extremely rare step of breaking the company's code of silence, denouncing in a blog post an "inconsistent, moody and erratic" management that ignores the illnesses of employees or of their families, sacks people without the slightest qualms and treats its community of contractors, resellers and partners with "utter disrespect."

Apple is a modern-day Narcissus. And like other Silicon Valley giants, though with more sophistication, it nurtures a little clique of journalists who know that whatever entry gates that are half-open to them will shut at the first ungracious sentence.

A very secretive company, it's also a closed ecosystem, a "walled garden." This was Steve Jobs' wish, in the name of his products' superiority. But the intransigence with which Apple dictates its conditions to exterior developers and subcontractors is often problematic.

"They claim to defend "counterculture" ethics, but their developing codes have always been among the least accessible and they protect their material with an incredible legal ferocity," Fred Turner explains. "Their products are extremely difficult to fiddle with. They're not made for hackers, although they’ve become a symbol of the hacker ideology. Apple is the perfect example of a closed company, operating in a very traditional way, but which has nonetheless been successful in maintaining counterculture's cool patina.” Apple and its double-face: pirate and king, anarchist and capitalist.

"Double Irish"

Apple is a steamroller, brutal and unscrupulous. Sure, under Tim Cook’s leadership, it has put an end to the worst abuses reported in the Chinese factories of its subcontractors, abuses that Cook himself endorsed when he was Jobs’ sidekick. But what about the rest?

Apple likes to project an image of a company that's not obsessed with profit. When talking about the Watch, designer Jony Ive said he was more concerned by "how we can make it as good as possible than how many we'll sell.” In reality, Apple has established an incredibly aggressive "fiscal optimization" strategy, a modest way of describing how to pay as little tax as possible. It was one of the first multinationals to adopt the "Double Irish and Dutch Sandwich," a trick that enables it to pay very little tax by transferring profits to its Irish and Dutch subsidiaries before parking them in the Caribbean. And even though Ireland last year killed the "Double Irish," Apple continues to pay less than 10% in taxes.

These past few weeks, the prestigious Harvard Business Review published two articles by Juan Pablo Vazquez Sampere. In them, the economics professor writes that Apple might be losing its magic on its biggest pride and joy, innovation. Its latest invention to short circuit banking business, Apple Pay, is not only far from being a replacement for credit cards, but is actually "helping to perpetuate a credit card payment system that is obsolete, overly expensive, and absolutely unnecessary in the present day," he writes.

To him, the Apple that used to "disrupt" and revolutionize whole industries "isn't there anymore." Even the Watch fails to impress him. "Look at the way they launched it on the market. You'd think Procter & Gamble were in charge of marketing. It's a very classical marketing, dated even," he says.

Too harsh? Apple has too often been prematurely written off for us not to be dubious about death notices. The Watch could end up changing our lives, like the iPads and iPods that at first blush seemed pointless to some. But in any case, that shouldn't keep us from examining with close and new scrutiny one of the biggest commercial juggernauts in history.

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Future

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.


But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

commons.wikimedia.org

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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