A critical advantage
This is all quite different from Google or Facebook, which collect and store massive amounts of identifiable data as part of their core businesses. It also separates Apple from Microsoft, which places the needs of enterprise customers ahead of consumers, under the assumption that the enterprise is the owner of the technology (a rapidly declining trend). Lastly, it increases the trust a consumer has not only in their hardware, but the applications running on it.
Apple is leveraging their business model and technologies to create a difficult, if not insurmountable, gap for competitors to cross.
Google can't stop scanning user email, since targeted advertising is its core business. Facebook won't encrypt messages end-to-end for the very same reason. Microsoft can't restrict enterprise administrators from controlling phones and computers, since enterprise manageability is core to its primary customer base, especially as it loses ground in the consumer market. Android — okay, Google — can't dictate hardware design, and thus can't consistently secure customer data on the device. Essentially, Apple uses the difference in its business model to attack competitors on privacy.
Apple makes its money selling hardware to consumers. All of its software and services are predominantly there to drive hardware (and to a lesser extent, media) sales. The consumer is the customer, not advertisers or enterprises. The only other companies in a similar position — such as Sony — lack the strength, software, and ecosystems to truly compete. Apple also clearly sees nothing to gain in designing systems that support government snooping (though it will be interesting to see how that works as it extends its services into China and other nations where domestic monitoring is legally mandated).
Apple didn't always place privacy so front and center. Most iOS privacy features only appeared in iOS 6, and only after some very public (albeit overhyped) abuses by certain apps. OS X only gained location privacy in Lion, and a full privacy center in Mountain Lion. Apple provided nearly no security or privacy details on iCloud until earlier this year. Apple still owns an advertising network.
The issues of safety and security — and by extension, privacy — provoke visceral emotions in people. Apple has always tried to build an emotional connection between its devices and customers. With its increasing focus on privacy, it's clear that Apple not only sees privacy as important to maintaining this bond, but as a means of differentiating itself from the competition. For a variety business and technical reasons, it's an advantage that will be hard for Apple's competition to duplicate.
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