Since this is a business blog, I try to keep my tone neutral and to dance around any politically loaded issues. That said, in my personal life, I tend to be wary of trading privacy for convenience. So why am I buying an iPhone from AT&T, the ISP who assisted the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program?
A little background is in order. Most people who know me would be shocked to learn I don’t already own an iPhone. I’m a typical early adopter of almost every kind of technology. I played on the Sierra Network, stored my contacts in a Psion 5 and listened to mp3s on a Rio long before AOL rose to prominence, before Palm stormed the market and before white iPod earbuds become ubiquitous. But with cell phones, I’ve been a deliberate laggard. Initially this was because I moved back to the States from Europe in 1999 and missed the initial wave of cell phone adoption in the US (a wave that would soon crash into Europe with such force as to impact beer sales!). Later, although I used SMS, I didn’t see the value in maintaining a convergence device like a Blackberry, especially as I almost always had my laptop with me.
However, several things have changed, and now I feel compelled to take the plunge. First, many of our critical applications at Sorgenfrei are SaaS based, like our phone, CRM, and project management systems. I often find myself making multiple, short entries during the day or quickly checking on the status of a contact or a project. With a convergence device I can do that where ever I am, whether or not I’ve got my laptop with me. And since many of our meetings take place in New York City, I’m increasingly missing not having mobile email and Google search. Finally, and probably most importantly, the iPhone’s careful design and deep compatibility will make the learning curve much less painful than, say, with a Blackberry or N95.
But if you want an iPhone in this country, you have two choices: jailbreak it, or sign a two year contract with AT&T. While it’s true that most U.S. telcos went along with the NSA (with T-Mobile and – in part – Verizon being the exceptions), AT&T actively helped the NSA tap the backbone. Certainly in the public mind, AT&T is the company most closely associated with the wiretapping program. I’ll admit: I’m reluctant to reward AT&T with a contract. I could stay with Verizon and buy a Blackberry, but I’m not crazy about RIM’s form factor, and Verizon’s CDMA based system is useless in Europe, and I travel there frequently. I could buy some other convergence device and use some other carrier, but the iPhone is so convenient, so seductively easy to use and maintain…and when I think about it, none of my email or phone calls are (potentially) private or secure anymore anyway. So why not go with what’s easiest and best?
I’ve written about the trade-offs between privacy and convenience before. Although I believe consumers will become increasingly savvy about their personal data, in the end, people are still going to choose to trade privacy for convenience. The challenge for business is to strike an acceptable balance between the two, as Google has now learned the hard way with the YouTube/Viacom debacle. Clearly, video as a medium struck a chord that wiretapping didn’t, and the businesses that can predict these type of reactions are the ones who will do well navigating our ever-interconnected marketplace.