Last September, Apple proudly rolled out a Screen Time feature that was designed to help people manage how much they use their devices, and even get away from them altogether with a related Downtime setting.
This was a canny marketing move from the maker of the most attractive and addictive screen ever invented. And it came against the backdrop of Apple’s unusually public campaign against Facebook in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Screen Time’s promotional materials prominently featured both Facebook and Instagram, as if suggesting these two apps in particular might be a waste of your time. Never mind that Facebook’s very real privacy liabilities aren’t connected to how often you use the product. Apple had an opportunity to position itself on the higher ground of the branding battlefield, and it took it.
Whatever its intentions, Screen Time served as a way for Apple to separate its business from Facebook’s on the eve of a new platform war. The two companies are increasingly seen as rivals jockeying to construct multimedia services around key messaging platforms. (Tech writer Will Oremus astutely made such an argument earlier this month.) At its core, Apple’s own iMessage is an incredibly valuable social network, one that keeps people locked in the blue bubble of iOS, where they’re liable to be lured in by subscription services like Apple Music. Cupertino has every reason to position Facebook’s rival messaging services as examples of low-quality screen time.
Time spent staring at screens may not be good for a user’s digital wellness, but it will increasingly make Apple money.
But if there was any pretense that Apple really wanted to help you move your eyeballs away from the iPhone with Screen Time or any other digital wellness feature, it was washed away on Monday, when the company unveiled a suite of offerings designed to lock you into its services: Apple News+, Apple TV+, Apple Arcade, and even the banking app attached to the titanium Apple Card all demand your attention… on screens made by Apple. Faced with slowing iPhone sales, Apple is emphasizing its services business. For these subscription-based services to be worth anything, people have to use them; to use them, people need to look at their screens. Time spent staring at screens may not be good for a user’s digital wellness, but it will increasingly make Apple money.
You’ll still be able to use the Screen Time feature, of course, but this pivot nonetheless reveals some softness in Apple’s PR strategy, at least. A company that solely made devices could credibly urge some responsibility with the use of those devices — and could presumably do so without harming its bottom line, as a phone manufacturer makes the same amount off that phone no matter how it is used. But the company cedes some moral high ground when its profit motive increasingly relies on hooking people on television and video games consumed and paid for through their devices. Sure, Apple has offered versions of these services for some time, but never as emphatically as it does now — and never with the kind of red-carpet rollout of Monday’s event.
That’s all fine, but it’s a reminder to look beyond the sheen of very expensive marketing if you hope to understand one of the most significant and powerful technology companies on the planet today. See also: Apple’s Environment page, measured against its spending on lobbying against “right to repair” or its still-open supply chain that contributes to an epidemic of toxic waste, as any major electronics company does.
There’s no need to moralize — this is how business works. But if you should find yourself wondering about the rhetoric surrounding Screen Time, or whatever digital wellness initiative that comes next, just follow the money. You’ll find your answer there.