'Sign in With Apple' Promises Better Customer Experiences But Is It Just More Lock-in?
Sign In with Apple is yet another manifestation of Apple's commitment to consumer privacy as a brand.
News from Apple’s massive Worldwide Developer Conference last week was all over the board, covering new hardware and developer tool sets for everything Apple. However, one of the more intriguing announcements came in the form of “Sign In with Apple.” The new sign-in or “identity platform” is Apple’s answer to how consumers can get a bit more privacy back in their lives when it comes to accessing and using apps within the iOS ecosystem. While initially greeted with considerable enthusiasm, the following few days brought on concerns about Apple mandating use of the sign-in feature for developers and what it means for the platform giant to make demands that potentially sway consumer behaviors. In the long run, the privacy upside from Apple’s announcement has potential benefits to business builders and consumers alike, while the platform implications highlight why identity and all of the things tied to it are so powerful for the giants of the technology industry.
Before getting into the specifics of what Apple’s asking of anyone building an app for its App Store, it’s worth recognizing what the company is doing from a strategic standpoint. After all, aside from making the hardware devices that sits in the pockets, desks and coffee tables of millions of Americans, Apple is also a technology leader in terms of its vision and approach to everything from privacy to consumer branding.
For almost as long as Tim Cook has been CEO, Apple has been outspoken and bullish about privacy. That attitude and messaging has only ramped up as we as consumers grow increasingly concerned by social media giants' increasing use of artificial intelligence and machine learning. High profile battles with the government over device encryption along with shots across the bow at other technology leaders ratcheted up Apple’s pro-privacy rhetoric, with the company now building full-on advertising campaigns around the idea. Sign In with Apple is yet another manifestation of Apple’s commitment to consumer privacy as a brand, and the company is betting that increased sensitivity around the issue will differentiate its products and its leadership.
So… how does it work?
Sign In with Apple fundamentally works in much the same way that other platforms like “Sign in with Google” or “Sign in with Facebook” work. These identity providers rely on the open standards called OAuth and OpenID Connect to share customer identities with app builders. What makes these standards so useful is that there is wide support for them, which saves a lot of time and energy for entrepreneurs and small firms who are building apps.
Most of the time, apps use these third-party providers to just identify users, saving their customers the step of entering and verifying an email address and remembering another password. This is great from a customer experience standpoint, and Sign In with Apple will provide the same convenience and ease of use as Sign In with Facebook or Sign In with Google for this purpose. The major difference is that Google and Facebook also reveal additional information about customers while they are signing in to the app, such as the user's full name, email address, or even profile information, while Sign In with Apple will take care to limit the data sharing. Instead of returning a real email address and name to the app, Apple lets users choose whether they want to give the app an anonymized email address or an alternative full name. This anonymized email address will forward emails from the app developer to the user's real email, allowing the app developer to still communicate with the user, while also preserving the user's privacy.
By limiting the information about a customer that’s shared, Apple is taking a step forward in an increasingly privacy-conscious digital world. This is beneficial for consumers, and with Apple owning nearly 40 percent of the mobile market in the U.S., the trust factor that comes with Sign In with Apple can speed customer experiences and elicit goodwill for the entrepreneurs who build with it. With Facebook and Google’s reputation taking a hit in the trust department, being able to make identity easily managed while still maintaining trust is a big deal for budding businesses. Consumers may not know an entrepreneur’s new app, but if they can quickly and securely sign in without Facebook or Google watching, they’ll likely feel better about trying it.
But isn’t Apple just another platform?
While there’s potential upside for businesses adopting the identity provider du jour with Sign In with Apple, there are real concerns about a business of its size and strength flexing the might of its platform. By mandating that developers adopt Sign In with Apple if they’re using any third party identity provider, Apple is loading the dice in favor of Sign In with Apple’s success. Broad adoption is certainly likely, and while Facebook and Google may publicly be seen as privacy scofflaws, Apple itself is a platform just like Google and Facebook. By putting itself directly between the relationship of an app developer and a consumer, Apple has the potential to derive even more value from the apps that sit in its ecosystem.
However, during a time when Apple is fighting antitrust allegations around its App Store practices, its approach to Sign In with Apple may also be an attempt to differentiate itself from other identity platforms with data-hungry tendencies. By thinking less about how much information it can gather, Apple is thinking more about how little information it needs in order to create a good experience for the customer, while streamlining the development process for the app builder.
Our digital privacy future is tied to identity.
As consumers become more conditioned to consider privacy implications rather than just convenience, digital business builders should take stock of Apple’s approach and the privacy-first design of Sign In with Apple. Consumers want to be able to trust the businesses they patronize, and as entrepreneurs, fundamental to that trust is protecting their identities. While this previously was primarily focused on issues of security, it is increasingly becoming focused on data collection and privacy as well. Maintaining both security and privacy for customers is part of maintaining a brand promise, and being able to do both while creating seamless user experiences is in the best interest of both businesses and the customers who rely on them.
Sign In with Apple is a positive initial step forward in setting a privacy-centric tone for the technology landscape as a whole. Giving consumers real control over the information they share and adding anonymized email is simply not something social identity platforms have broadly implemented. But while incredibly successful, the iOS ecosystem isn’t used by everyone. Apple taking the lead here will be most impactful if it can push others to do the same, and ultimately, force a broad and cohesive approach to identity and privacy that can easily be adopted by organizations big and small, regardless of platform. It’s this idea of an identity standard that holds the greatest long term benefit to businesses and consumers, and should be what all businesses continue to push for in our digitally-dependent business environment.
Aaron Parecki is a Senior Developer Advocate at Okta, as well as the author of OAuth 2.0 Simplified. He likes to help people understand and implement identity standards like OAuth effectively and securely.