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"Apple cracks down on apps that fight iPhone addiction."
That's not the Onion. That's not Saturday Night Live. That's an actual headline from the New York Times, the Gray Lady, the paper of record.
The Times could have also, easily, used a different headline:
"Apple removes child-targeting potential spyware from the App Store."
It's just as absurd but in no way less accurate. I don't know if it would bait any fewer clicks, but I do know the Times just shouldn't be in that business either way. It should, not to get all Aaron Sorkin for a moment, be the business of informing its readers, of speaking truth to stupid.
Now, I hate the term fake news. I hate it. It's a political construct and not an informational one. What this is is just lazy, sensationalism, and the best and only way to deal with it isn't to label dismiss it, because that's just as lazy, but to fact check it, to hold it up to scrutiny and see how well it holds up.
The Times Take
Here's how the Times sets this up:
Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc, to stick with the theme. After it, therefore because of it. It's a classic saying. Well, actually, a classic logical fallacy. The Times is putting those two sentences together to avoid actually stating Apple removed the apps because Apple launched it's own version of the feature, but also to strongly imply Apple did just exactly that.
If it's true, why not just say it? If it's not true, why not just say why Apple removed the apps. If the Times doesn't know, why not just that that?
Then, the cherry topper:
Now, there's a legitimate discussion to be made about platforms and App Stores, and I had Nilay Patel of the Verge on with me a few weeks ago to do just that. It's a potentially bigger discussion, one that goes to the heart of many modern economies, similar to Walmart having house brands and wielding unusual power over the fortunes of other corporations.
But this particular piece doesn't seem interested in any of that, because, I don't know, not fuddy enough?
The Time does include a brief statement from App Store PR's Tammy Levine, which says:
Then, this fascinating bit:
The Apple Email
Fascinating in that that part was obviously added after the article was originally posted, even though I couldn't find an update tag to that effect, but also in that it leaves out something fairly important from Schiller's email — Schiller, who is Apple's Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing and whose portfolio includes much of the App Store. Here's what else the email, as published by MacRumors had to say:
Now, as I said last column, I screw up all the time, so one of the things I learned early on is that when I get a statement from anyone or any company, I run the full statement as is. That's the only way to make sure I'm presenting facts as absolutely accurately as possible.
If I think there's something wrong or misleading or flat out false in the statement, I'll say that as well, but I won't change or edit a statement. Not ever.
So, that's a hell of a charge for Apple to make and, if accurate, a hell of thing for the Times to get wrong.
The Newsroom News
What was Apple's full statement to the times? Unless and until the Times posts it, we don't know. But Apple has since posted its own statement to its own Newsroom (opens in new tab), so we can look at that, including the explanation of the reasons — the risks — Schiller mentioned.
It's long, so I won't quote it in its entirety, but I'll put a link along with the full Times article and Schiller's letter, in the description below. But I will pull a few things, starting with the title.
That's about a close as a company can get to calling bullcrap on something, in a way that puts their own credibility on the line, and so comes across with a lot of impact. It's much smaller scale but not dissimilar to what Apple did to Bloomberg in response their Big Hack story, something that all these months later, Bloomberg hasn't had the integrity to either backup or retract.
Apple opens up this way:
And, really, I think that's just about the worst way to open. No other apps currently permissible on the App Store has the capabilities to really offer similar features in a convenient, effective way.
My guess is that Apple is doing what Apple typically does: Introducing Screen Time as a built-in feature, dog-fooding it, adjusting it if and as needed, and then, a year or two later, introducing an API — application programming interface — that other apps can use to securely, reliably, privately tap into the same data and offer alternative implementations and value-added services.
Schiller, in his letter, says almost as much:
It can feel annoyingly slow, especially to developers and customers who want more and different now, now, now, but it's also something else — responsible. And that's what you have to be when you manage a platform and are responsible for hundreds of millions of customers and all the possible repercussions that come with getting things wrong.
And here's the core of Apple explanation:
So, basically, to provide screen-time like services, these apps were abusing Apple's MDM system. That's the systems big businesses use to manage the phones of all their workers and all the data the company, not the workers, want to control. And taking complete control of enrolled devices, these screen time apps effectively becoming the owners of all those devices, gaining access to all the data — including location and activity data – of everyone using them.
Does that mean the companies were abusing that control? No. But that also doesn't mean they should have it. Ever.
Apple says just as much:
Apple gave developers who were missing MDM 30 days to change. Some did. Others didn't. Apple removed the ones that didn't.
The Fallout (So Far)
The Times quotes a developer saying Apple never explained the exact changes needed or the reasons for them, and that it was all very nebulous, confusing, and frustrating. If accurate, that's terrible. In these kinds of situations, over-communication is the only decent recourse for everyone involved.
If Apple hadn't removed the apps, though, there's a very real possibility the Times, and/or some other pub, would have run just as breathless a piece titled: Apple fails to act on App Store abuses, puts the privacy of children at risk.
As to the anti-competitive charges, the timing certainly could seem suspicious, happening almost a year after Apple introduced their own Screen Time feature.
while the timing does absolutely look suspicious given Apple's own Screen Time debuted last year and this is happening now, not at some point prior to that, Apple states the fo
Can we believe that? WhatsApp is on the App Store. So is Google Maps. Even indie apps like PCalc, Fantastical, and Halide, to name just a few, have not only shown you can absolutely compete successfully with Apple on the App Store, but you can totally kick their apps.
Again, it sucks that developers have to wait for Apple to provide a secure way to compete with them on screen time, but Apple internally will delay features until they can do them privately and securely as well.
For Apple, it's a must-have.
Screen Time isn't perfect. Far from it. People, especially in cross-platform families, have real and legitimate issues with it, and so do people who want options beyond those Apple provides.
There's also a whole separate argument to be had about the best parental control is simply not allowing access to a device except for very short amounts of time under very specific circumstances, and not carrying your own device with you all the time, everywhere, including and especially your bedroom at night.
But that's something completely different for us to fight about, and for me to do a follow-up in the future.
I know some of you are going to complain that I'm once again talking about the coverage instead of the issue, but forget the medium being the message, the coverage, for many people, the coverage ends up being the issue, especially when we're talking about a massively mainstream pub like the New York Times.
It shapes opinion, discussion, perspective, everything. Which is why I think it's so important to address how these issues are covered even while addressing the issues themselves.
Yes, it sucks for the developers who've had their apps removed, especially when those apps have been established for a long time. It affects their livelihood and the lives of their employees and families. But, developers always have and always will come second to customers. And, if there's anything to blame Apple for here, it's for not recognizing these apps were abusing mobile device management and either getting them to change or removing them sooner.
Because, everything else aside, the only thing that really matters here is this — nobody should be monitoring your kids' iPhone but you.
Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.
Developers: change your shady apps and quit whining.
i'm not a developer, not will i pretend to be. HOWEVER, the options Apple gives, do not give enough control to parents wanting control to our children's devices. If these apps cross their line, then fine, but I need more control over what my kids do, how long i they do it, and where they go to do it.
"That's not the Onion. That's not Saturday Night Live. That's an actual headline from the New York Times, the Gray Lady, the paper of record." Ha, good one. The New York times USED to be "the paper of record". About 30 years ago. These days it's no better - or more important - than the Post. "As to the anti-competitive charges, the timing certainly could seem suspicious, happening almost a year after Apple introduced their own Screen Time feature." OK, but this is immediately followed with: "while the timing does absolutely look suspicious given Apple's own Screen Time debuted last year and this is happening now, not at some point prior to that, Apple states the fo" Seriously. Does ANYONE proofread this stuff? Is there an editor here? If so, how does he/she keep the job? As for the actual topic. Yes, it DOES look extremely suspicious. Claiming "privacy" is nice, but then why were these apps ever allowed in the store in first place? At best, this is very bad PR, from a company that KNOWS better. At worst, it is what it appears to be: removing competing software from the store. There will be 2 sides to this. Apple's and the developers who got burned. Who to believe?
"Seriously. Does ANYONE proofread this stuff? Is there an editor here? If so, how does he/she keep the job?" Technically if people are still viewing/commenting on the articles, nobody's out of a job. If McDonalds sold horrible tasting food but people kept on going there, nobody would get fired. The same logic applies here.
I hate to be so agreeable because where's the fun in that? However, I think you brilliantly laid out a case for shoddy, lazy, click-baity reporting by an organization that once was the epitome of great journalism. But you also covered the underlying issue well, calling out Apple where they need to be called out. I very much appreciate your balance and authenticity in your coverage of this story. Like you, I'm no fan of the "fake news" construct, but I do think you've made a valid case for being wary of almost any media outlet. This age of information we're in has made it near impossible to compete if you're not first with a story, **** the facts, who has time for research and questions. That's a sad commentary on the "fourth estate" which should be held to the highest standards of fact and truth. Of course, now that truth is relative and we each have our own, I guess even lazy reporting can be classified as truth. Keep up the great work, Rene! I enjoy your passion and your willingness to patiently dig until you're ready to present your story.
What is up with the writer of this article? Seriously, I think you need to revisit grade school. Edit your work.
If the apps were using MDM, then why is MDM OK for corporations to use, but not parents?
MDM gives the control to the developer, not the parents. The app allows the parents to adjust settings and monitor usage, but it’s the developer that retains absolute control. So while the parents believed they were the only ones with access and control, the app developer had access to all those devices and data their app was installed on.
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