Apple has a way with making the old seem new again.
Whether it’s a feature like Dark Mode, a service like Apple TV+, or an entire category like smartphones, Apple has repeatedly taken a concept someone else thought of first, refined it, and turned it into something uniquely Apple – often to much success.
Sometimes, Apple touts its creation as the definitive version, essentially ignoring what came before. But sometimes the company is more transparent about its imitation game, as it was at its Worldwide Developers Conference earlier this week when it unveiled “Sign In with Apple” as a key feature of iOS 13.
Sign in with Apple is the company’s take on social account logins that many apps and services offer. When you log in for the first time in an app (like Bird, the scooter share app), often it’ll give you the option to sign in via a social account like Facebook, Google, or Twitter in lieu of creating a new account with yet another service (and yet another password you have to store somewhere). The user gets convenience, the social platform gets more user data, and the app gets more users. Everybody (seemingly) wins.
Apple’s take is different, though, with a strong eye on user privacy. As Apple Senior Vice President Craig Federighi explained during the WWDC keynote:
“A simple API allows a developer to put a Sign In with Apple button right in their app. You just tap it, and you’re authenticated with Face ID on your device, logged in with a new account without revealing any new personal information.”
Apple’s phones, Apple’s rules
Sign In with Apple got exactly 2 minutes and 26 seconds in a 137-minute keynote, but that limited time doesn’t detract from its importance; from an app and developer standpoint, the new feature is nothing less than game-changing. That’s because what Federighi didn’t say is that if a developer already offers social sign-ins with other platforms, it will be required to include Sign In with Apple, per the new App Store Guidelines. Developers must also put Apple’s sign-in above other buttons, according to the company’s Human Interface Guidelines.
That’s … a firm position to say the least, but it’s defensible. Apps that offer social sign-ins are already comfortable with a third party handling login, so why not offer Apple’s, too — especially since it’s Apple’s platform in the first place. And while there’s no polling data to point to, it seems obvious that many Apple users would likely prefer to log in with their Apple ID than with some other platform, and that there’d be fewer hiccups with the user experience.
But the real reason Apple is resorting to strong-arm tactics probably has to do with how Sign In with Apple handles privacy: If the user doesn’t want to share their email address with the app, they can opt to create an anonymous one. That means the app won’t get much in the way of relevant user data, so why implement Apple’s new sign-in button unless you have to? Well, they have to.
In the past, I suspect Apple would have been criticized more harshly for this, but over the past couple of years, the major tech platforms have all come under more scrutiny and skepticism, especially with regard to their handling of user data. At the same time, Apple has positioned itself as a champion of privacy, emphasizing time and again that its business model isn’t about selling you things via ads (“We’re not Google!”) or tracking your every move so they can sell you things via ads (“We’re definitely not Facebook!”).
All this gives clues to answering the question, “Why now?” Social sign-in buttons have existed for almost a decade at this point, and Apple could have introduced its own at any time. Lots of things have changed in the intervening years, but for Apple, the biggest one has been its shift to focusing on digital services.
The future is services
Tim Cook has been crowing about services being the future of Apple for a while, but in the past few years the company has gotten serious about it. Apple knows iPhone sales are declining and that, barring another breakthrough gadget, its opportunities to grow the company through new hardware are limited. Digital services like streaming and mobile payments, on the other hand, are still growing markets, and there’s no reason Apple has to be a mere facilitator of those services via hardware (antitrust concerns notwithstanding). It can be a player, too – and a player with homefield advantage considering how well it knows its own customers’ behavior.
That’s exactly what I suspect the new button is really about. If a user signs into a third-party app with Apple, that gives Apple both an opportunity at revenue (since it will likely mean more subscriptions within apps, which Apple gets a 30% cut of) as well as a better look at customer behavior.
If a user opts for Sign In with Apple on various apps that Apple directly competes with (like music or video streaming services), it knows those users probably have more brand loyalty to Apple overall, and thus should be seen as potential customers. It might then market to those users more strongly – for instance, Apple might tweak the suggestions they see in the App Store, and may even remind them of things like free trials for apps more directly beneficial to Apple’s bottom line. Apple could even get insights as to new services it should offer when it sees a disproportionate number of users opting for Sign In with Apple vs. other platforms on apps it doesn’t yet compete with.
When asked about the new feature, Apple told Reviews.com it wouldn’t track or profile users for advertising purposes, which sounds reassuring, though the language gives them plenty of wiggle room. Still, how much of an edge any of this could be is debatable. Apple already knows which apps users are downloading and how often they’re used. But the use of the Sign In with Apple button strikes me as such a strong indicator of overall brand loyalty, it seems unlikely Apple would ignore it.
That’s why this new button is so potentially game-changing. Any app that uses social sign-ins will now need to weigh the benefits (more sign-ups from Apple’s relatively affluent customer base) against the trade-offs (ceding more of the customer relationship to Apple). That dilemma isn’t really new — developers have been confronting a version of it since the dawn of the App Store, and historically the equation has cut in favor of the benefits.
But over the years Apple has slowly tilted the table more and more in their direction, and the new sign-in button may be the change that makes some developers flip it over. Does it really benefit Spotify (whose app offers a Sign In with Facebook option) to give Apple such a convenient a path to lure its customers, or at least a subset, to Apple Music?
For users, the button appears to offer an unbeatable deal: Convenience and a platform that promises not to share your data so third parties can market to you? Sign In with Apple will no doubt be a runaway success as soon as it launches, but does the privacy equation change if it’s Apple doing the marketing?
Sign In with Apple is far from revolutionary. But it shows Apple’s greatest innovation of the past few years has been re-inventing itself as Big Tech’s guardian of privacy. It’s been so successful that it can introduce the same data-gathering feature Facebook has been criticized over, slap a privacy label on it, and turn it into something not just useful, but desirable. (Sign In with Apple got enthusiastic cheers at WWDC, even correcting for Apple’s reality distortion field.)
In other words, trust counts for a lot. With its new login button, Apple is showing that it’s not just good at leveraging that trust – it’s weaponized it.
Update 6/7/19 10:20 p.m. ET: Apple responded to Reviews.com’s queries to state it would not track or profile users for advertising purposes. We’ve updated the post with the information.
Image: Apple’s senior vice president of Software Engineering Craig Federighi speaks during the keynote address during the 2019 Apple Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) at the San Jose Convention Center on June 3, 2019, in San Jose, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)