One day in January 2007, this correspondent was taken aback by the sight of a crowd. It had literally camped outside the glass cube of the Apple store on Fifth Avenue and 59th Street, in New York. The scene looked like a siege.
There were security guards the size of a small bulldozer, and a velvet rope ran along the esplanade. Surprise only lasted a fraction of a second. Your correspondent remembered that a few days later the very first iPhone would hit the market.
Some of these people had brought sleeping bags. A few had an expression in their face more commonly associated with mystics or zealots of any conviction. And they probably felt a very strong, almost religious urge to be among the first to experience the magic of an iPhone.
The scene was truly surreal, like people waiting for the last boat out of Pompeii. Yet when a long time later this correspondent laid his hands on an iPhone, he, too, converted to this faith. Kind of.
It is true that the later models look lame. But there can be no bigger compliment, and acknowledgment, than imitation. The dispute of Mac versus Windows about the originality of icons on a screen is a false one. That credit goes to PARC, Xerox’s lab for futuristic projects. It spawned much of the modern consumer technology as we know it. But the iPhone was a true pioneer. If you have a doubt about, look around and see who set the template of today’s smartphones.
Apple is publicizing its efforts to fight an FBI request to unlock the single telephone used in a crime. A federal judge last week ordered Apple to create new software and take others steps to retrieve data from the locked phone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the shooters in a terrorist attack in December 2015 in San Bernardino, California, who was killed in a gun battle with police. The FBI requested Apple that it create an alternative operating system for just that mobile device. It is true that there are another 175 telephones waiting to be broken into, but the bureau is not requesting sweeping access to the universe of Apple devices. Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, has come out in support of the government in this case, invoking the imperative of cooperating in the resolution of crimes such as the one at stake, that left 14 dead. Others in the Sillicon Valley, including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey and Google chief Sundar Pichai, have backed Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, albeit in a much muted fashion. The FBI’s suggestions that Apple is turning the case into a marketing operation may have no merits. Yet this much is true: any publicly advertised move is bound to become, by its very nature, publicity. And Apple has cult following all over the world. It would not be unfair to think that the company may be banking on that. The tension between privacy and security is old in democratic societies. That’s why there are courts of law in a system that, however imperfect, affords more equal rights to all parties concerned than any other political order. Techno-populism has no place in this. Admiration earned for technological miracles does not afford privileges before the law, nor does it give a moral upper hand.