Future Tense

Apple’s Walled Garden Is Becoming Harder to Escape

The company just unveiled a ton of new features designed to trap you in its confines.

An Apple logo peering from behind a tall hedge—a walled garden.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Apple and BP Miller on Unsplash.

Few companies can walk a tightrope like Apple. Although the company has been scrutinized all year for allegedly exerting monopoly power through its App Store—by the U.S. Senate, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and in a trial brought by Epic Games—it nonetheless powered ahead and announced a mountain of new software features Monday designed to tighten the screws on users.

Put another way, the barriers around Apple’s notorious walled garden are about to grow higher. In a keynote event at its annual Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple announced new operating systems for the iPhone, iPad, Mac, and Apple Watch that are brimming with services that exist to discourage an escape to other platforms.

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And why wouldn’t they? Apple’s fortunes—now swollen to a brain-melting $2.1 trillion market cap, currently highest in the known universe—are not maintained through one-off product sales, but rather the careful construction of behavioral cycles.

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Consider the iPhone you are statistically quite likely to be reading this on. Although it may have cost you north of $1,000, Apple’s executives are of the opinion that you ought to upgrade it every year. So, in 2015, they introduced the iPhone Upgrade Program. Apple now facilitates 0 percent interest loans for consumers to purchase a new device, paid back in monthly installments with the option to swap for the latest iPhone when they’re halfway through—renewing the cycle in perpetuity. Thus did Apple create a consistent revenue stream for its new devices, enjoyed by some 36 percent of iPhone owners according to one recent survey. (Never mind the destruction wrought by the production of so much new technology.)

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That’s the old news. Apple is good enough at product development to consistently concoct fresh glue in its digital realm. Look at the new features in iOS 15—the newly announced iPhone operating system launching later this year. iMessage, which is already Apple’s not-so-secret weapon for keeping users locked to iOS with its enviable blue bubbles, will get attractive new file-sharing features—clumping pictures into swipe-able collections, for instance—as will other proprietary Apple apps, like the Safari browser, Apple News, Apple Music, Podcasts, Apple TV, and Photos. A new “Focus” feature will let you display a kind of away message if you want to give your full attention to a given task, but Apple notes in its press release that it will only automatically display to users of its Messages app. It’s another example of the company stratifying digital social classes through its texting service, much like the green bubbles that denote Android users.

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There’s plenty more. The “Find My” app will now be able to locate devices when they’re powered down. A new Digital Legacy feature will let you appoint a steward of your device and information before you croak. “Universal Control” will connect your iPad and Mac through shared accessories. The Notes app is receiving new collaboration features, and while it’s hard to imagine anyone switching to Notes from Google Docs or Microsoft Word, don’t count it out entirely. Friction is a hell of a thing: If I want to get a friend’s eyes on a sensitive email I’m drafting on my iPhone, I may be more inclined to take the path of least resistance to Notes, which is basic but good, rather than fiddling with the annoying Google Docs app or Microsoft Word.

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This is not a comprehensive list. Included among the many updates are expanded privacy features that deserve applause—although these, too, and perhaps these especially, will have the ultimate effect of keeping users tethered to Apple’s product line. Complexity is a major hurdle for people who might otherwise be inclined to adopt greater privacy protections in their day-to-day lives—VPNs, for instance, require setup and at least a dollop of technical know-how. If Apple can file down those hard edges with its new Private Relay feature, why would users switch to anything else? One also imagines that, like Tile executives rattled by the introduction of Apple’s AirTags, competing VPN services are less than thrilled by this development.

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The core issue is not so much that Apple plans to provide services for which there are already serviceable competitors: It’s that it will do so in a closed system. Unlike Google’s Android, which allows the “sideloading” of apps from outside the company’s official app store, Apple maintains a vise grip on user behavior in iOS. When Apple purged Fortnite from the App Store last year for violating its payment terms, iPhone users had no recourse. The game was simply gone, and it remains so to this day. Google removed the game from the Play Store for the same reason, but Android users can easily install the game via the open web.

Apple is also known to kneecap its rivals. Services that directly compete with Apple’s own offerings—Spotify or Netflix, say—are subject to a 30 percent fee from the tech giant for any subscriptions processed on its platform. (This is why you often cannot purchase digital goods in a third-party app—they simply refuse to give Apple its cut.) And though few will have any sympathy for Facebook, the social network has recently found its entire business model disrupted by Apple’s new privacy controls. There’s also a seedy pay-to-play element: Google has reportedly paid billions to serve as the default search engine in Apple products.

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All of which is to say: One can enjoy the comforts provided by Apple, but they ought to pay attention when the company closes the door and tosses out the key.

They should also watch how Apple tries to get away with it. The company’s big tagline for the iOS 15 update is “In touch. In the moment.” It promises to “help you connect with others, be more present and in the moment, [and] explore the world.” But the vision articulated here is mediated by screens—Apple’s screens—more than ever.

You can use a refreshed Apple Maps to “Visit amazing 3D landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge.” Using Apple’s new augmented reality features, you can walk around with your iPhone in front of your face for “immersive walking instructions,” where street names will be overlaid on your real-world surroundings. Your driver’s license can be uploaded to the Apple Wallet program for use at TSA checkpoints. That same app will soon feature digital home keys to unlock your front door and hotel rooms. (Good luck switching to Android once you’ve crossed that bridge.) “Live Text” will absorb the information in photographs you take with the Camera app, so you can tap a restaurant’s signage to dial its phone number without typing in all those pesky digits.

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Meanwhile, the Apple Watch has a new Mindfulness app, where “a beautiful animation helps you visualize as a minute passes,” as though Zen is ideally achieved through a gadget rather than the absence of one. And the Health app will allow you to surveil relatives once they’ve consented to sharing their information. You’ll be able to ponder what it means that your mom has received seven hours and six minutes of sleep on average for the past four weeks versus seven hours and 52 minutes the 22 weeks prior.

An example of Apple's new health features in iOS: In this case, an example of the user's mom and her health statistics.
An example of the Apple Watch’s new health features, which can send data to a relative’s phone. Apple
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Taken together, the unmistakable message of these updates is that life is best lived through one of Apple’s devices—or ideally a combination of them. The Apple press conference, already suffused with a flavor of paternalism from the Steve Jobs era, is now explicitly about defining the nature of your digital life. And if the past year has taught us anything, it’s that your digital life is, in fact, your life itself.

Maybe that’s fine. Apple has, for the most part, avoided the appearance of outright malevolence—a contrast with some of its Big Tech contemporaries. But it is also, in the end, operating toward the same end goals: growth and profit. For that reason, if not others, consider well how much of your life you cede to its digital realm. You may find it’s hard to take it back.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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