Apple dropped a bomb at their global developer conference: It’s stepping in to curb phone addiction. This is a big blow to the ad-driven platforms that have hijacked our phones and our attention.
Right before Craig Federighi, Apple’s head of software, demonstrated the latest advancements in emojis, including tongue detection, he announced the release of “a comprehensive set of built in features to help you limit distraction.” This is a big deal, because until now, we have been fending for ourselves — and we’re totally outgunned in the war for attention.
Attention is the oxygen of advertising.
There’s a reason why phones are so addictive: ad money. You paid for your phone, but most of the things you do on it are powered by advertising. Google, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter all make their money from advertising.
Those companies compete with each other for your attention — fighting to have you on their properties a little longer. With your attention, they have opportunities, without it, they have nothing.
It is a fundamental maxim in technology that platforms and products should be sticky, and hold your attention as much as possible. It’s like gravity: Attention has such a big impact on everything that it’s almost taken for granted.
Those little red dots, the chimes, push notifications — these are all designed to pull you in. It’s a highly evolved system that has become too successful. Try to just quickly do one thing on your phone. It’s impossible.
A one sided battle
Facebook is a giant media platform, but they don’t create content, so what are they occupied with? They make money in proportion to the time you spend on their platforms. So it’s their job to get and keep people on their properties. All that engineering and design talent, all their technical and financial might are focused on this. The same applies at Google.
Until now it’s been your willpower against what Scott Galloway calls “the greatest concentration of human and financial capital ever assembled.” You never stood a chance.
Re-staking their claim
Apple was founded on a closed system principle that Steve Jobs espoused. If you control the hardware, the software, the whole system — then you can ensure the quality, and protect it if necessary. That’s exactly what the company has done.
“iPhone and iPad are some of the most powerful tools ever created,” Federighi reminded us. It’s no small feat that Apple are incentivizing their customers to spend less time with their products.
The ad funded side of technology has probably become a bigger part of the iPhone experience than Apple’s own features. They have grown increasingly powerful, and they compete with Apple’s softening growth. An overall reduction in time spent on iPhones will likely increase the percentage of time users’ spend on Apple turf. Not to mention, the company has its own plans for an advertising network, albeit one based on different approaches to personal data.
The best defense…
“So if in your activity report you see an app were you might want to be spending a little less time, you can set your own limit,” Federighi said with Instagram highlighted in the demo — to muted chuckles.
There was a double blow to the ad-driven platforms announced in the keynote. Apple is also implementing new anti-tracking measures in Safari by blocking the embedded buttons that Facebook, Google and others use to track users when they’re off their platforms. This data has been a pivotal asset and source of intelligence for their ad products.
Federighi announced bluntly, “these can be used to track you, whether you click on them or not. So this year, we’re shutting that down.”
The awareness of phone addiction and the increasing role of technology in our lives has taken off recently but until now it’s been just that — awareness. Now there is real engineering power and might behind it.
Having a detailed breakdown of how much time we spend on our phones, on each app per day, how many notifications each sends, ranking them all and so on — will allow people to set goals. Then new functionality to actually limit time spent on specific apps and the reach that they have, will truly empower people.
If Apple succeeds in reducing users’ screen time by 15 minutes a day — they will be taking more than one billion user hours per week out of the ad ecosystem and giving this time back to their customers.
Phones have become insidious in their manipulation of our attention and behavior. Apple’s resistance will bring some much needed balance.