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A few random thoughts on Apple’s China mess:

  • I’m somewhat sympathetic to Apple.

Apple is a very powerful company, but China is the second largest economy in the world. Apple is a multinational company with hundreds of billions of dollars with revenue; I’m not convinced that it’s not reasonable to compare their behavior to the behavior of countries with a similar GDP. And it seems like it’s reasonable to give smaller countries a break when dealing with much larger countries on realpolitik concerns?

I dunno; maybe that comparison is ridiculous (companies aren’t countries!), or maybe the answer is that Apple is too large and too multinational. Though the multinational thing isn’t entirely the issue—Cook has come under fire for his interactions with Trump, too…

  • I could see that opinion changing fast.

I’m really scared of what’s going on in Xinjiang, and of China’s increasing surveillance state. And it’s not like that behavior is a one-off, either: I was just reading the Dalai Lama’s autobiography, and what happened in Tibet was awful. So I can imagine international opinion going bad really quickly. (Though who knows, we seem to have a pretty high tolerance for governments doing really bad things.)

  • It’s a hard tightrope to walk, and Apple might be falling off.

So far Apple’s been able to say “we’re just following the law”, while pushing back in various places about laws or proposed that they think are bad (most notably around encryption in the United States). But, with HKmaps, it’s not at all clear that what they were doing was required by law; and it’s also not at all clear to me that China isn’t going to make their laws quite a bit more strict, especially around encryption.

We’ve seen examples over the last couple of years of people trying to do their best while working with Trump, and coming out looking really badly; I feel like the same thing is starting to be apply to interactions with China as well.

  • Manufacturing is a real problem.

If Apple stops selling in China, that’s not going to help their stock, but whatever. (And I say that as somebody who has a decent amount of Apple stock!) But if they stop being able to manufacture in China, then that’s much worse for the company. (And, more selfishly, for my ability to buy a nice new phone.)

I would have to think that this is Tim Cook’s number one worry? (I don’t know what the other candidates would be.) And I assume that we’ll see more assembly (and hopefully other parts of the supply chain) moved to other countries, and that Apple and Hon Hai have had talks about contingency plans…

(Hmm, maybe this points out that I actually shouldn’t own stock in the company: I feel like I understand most of their business concerns well enough to be be able to guess at the future within my risk tolerance, but geopolitical concerns are a different matter, at least these days.)

  • The App Store makes app permissions a false dichotomy.

The question “should HKmaps be allowed in the App Store?” is only a crucial one because that’s the only way to get the app on your iPhone. But that’s bad: iOS is arguably the most valuable computing platform in the world, Apple shouldn’t have monopoly control over what runs on it!

I’m sympathetic to some of Apple’s reasons here: security is super important, I don’t want to have to worry about software running on my phone. But that’s not the only reason why Apple puts restrictions on the App Store: they restrict based on content, not just security. I think it’s fine for a store that’s curated along non-security criteria to be one of the options, but it’s wrong for it to be the only option. (Going back to my Apple-as-country analogy, they’re not big on free speech!)

So, for non-China-related reasons, Apple should loosen up the App Store. I’m actually not sure if that would make a meaningful dent in China-related app restriction: maybe the right solution is for Apple to allow opt-in for arbitrary app installs, in which case it would, but maybe the right solution outside of a China context is for Apple to allow opt-in for app installs that pass some security screening, and if they do that, then that opens the door for legal concerns to be part of the screening.

But, until Apple at least tries that route, then it’s hard for me to take their moral concerns around app installs in China all that seriously…

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