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Apple joins Amazon in using fear to sell hardware

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Beneath its cheery veneer, Apple’s iPhone 14 keynote was unusually dark.

From the start, the company seemed to warn users that danger lurks everywhere. At the opening of the Apple Watch assembly, users personally thanked Tim Cook for saving a series of bizarre accidents, including a plane crash and a possible bear attack, and was followed shortly after by an in-depth discussion of how the new Apple Watch Series 8 car- can detect accidents.

Later, the company detailed the many ways an Apple Watch Ultra can save you from danger: a promo video soberly touting features that “keep you found in circumstances that leave you lost.” And for the unveiling of the iPhone 14, Apple went back to the car wreck scenario — yes, the phone also detects crashes — and touted a new ability to contact emergency services via satellite, complete with a dismal video of rescue personnel scrambling to find a few rescue from iPhone users via helicopter.

It was all a little too disturbing and a little too familiar: Apple seems to have pulled a page from Amazon’s playbook.

Turn to safety

As I wrote a few years ago, Amazon has increasingly turned to fear-peddling as the centerpiece of its smart home efforts. Devices like the Echo speaker, once marketed as a harmless device for playing music or checking the weather, now doubles as a way to listen for intruders and repel them with simulated dog barks. Amazon’s Ring brand, best known for its doorbell cameras, has expanded into home alarm systems, car dashboard cameras, and flying drones for home security.

Over the summer, I spent a few weeks reviewing the company’s Astro home robot and could never figure out what it might be useful for. When I urged Amazon to provide examples, the company mainly pointed to home security and downgraded some really impressive hardware work to a camera on wheels. I’m saddened by Amazon’s plans to acquire iRobot, as the robot vacuum’s ambitious smart home plans are likely to be reduced to a similar fate.

Look, I get it: fear sells. This in itself isn’t a shocking revelation, and I can see why big tech companies would get involved. But the risk to Apple is that fear-peddling also corrupts. It makes people perceive more danger than what is actually there, and it becomes a cheap haven for companies that otherwise run out of ideas. Worse, it serves as a justification for continued surveillance through cameras and sensors, and we should be skeptical about that, no matter how respectful the privacy a company claims to be.

Call it back

My point is not that Apple should avoid building new security features into its products or that it should refrain from talking about it. Many of them sound really useful, and on the scale of the iPhone, letters of praise are sure to keep pouring into Tim Cook’s mailbox.

But if Apple pushes these features too hard, it sends a message that unless you buy an iPhone and an Apple Watch, you’re not really safe. That’s sloppy from a marketing standpoint and worrying in terms of what the company is focusing on.

In other words, Apple has so much more to offer than just protection against freak accidents. If it can’t figure out how to sell us something else, that’s a sign of bigger trouble.

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