“The biggest source of strength that Apple has is their ability to charge premium prices for their products,” he said. “Their value depends on people feeling safe and supported within their ecosystem.”
And, in fact, Apple responded. The company told the investors that it believed the overuse of tech was a serious issue, and that it had been working on it. In the summer, it unveiled a series of widely praised features meant to allow adults to police their own and their kids’ smartphone habits.
Google, apparently spurred by the same campaign, offered similar features for its Android phones. Mr. Penner told me that he appreciated the companies’ efforts, though he expects to keep pushing them to reduce their devices’ addictiveness.
Apple’s safety-first business model may become only more important as technology becomes even more intimate. The company’s latest phones can be unlocked with your face, while its watch includes sophisticated sensors to monitor your movements and your health. In pushing these and other advances, the company can reasonably argue that only its ad-free business can protect such sensitive information.
But it is worth noting that Apple’s model isn’t available to everyone. In the spring, after Mr. Cook took a few swipes at Facebook’s scandals, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, pointed out the inherent limits in Apple’s model.
“The reality here is that if you want to build a service that helps connect everyone in the world, then there are a lot of people who can’t afford to pay,” Mr. Zuckerberg told the journalist Ezra Klein.
Since then, Apple has raised the prices of its top-end phones, and as the smartphone market slows, the company’s pristine haven from the dangers of online life might get only more expensive.
Inequality is the story of our age, and it’s no surprise that it could become the dominant story line of tech, too. As the digital world gets scarier, Apple’s technology may come to resemble a high-priced oasis for the world’s rich. Everyone else takes their chances on a free lunch.