Apple: The Preparedness Company
Recognizing that the 2020s are a more dangerous world, Apple pivots accordingly. And predictably, it's being scoured by the tech press.
I have perhaps the strangest pair of niches of any online writer. On nights and weekends, I write about preparedness here at Unprepared and in outlets like Reviewed. But by day I’m the managing editor of TidBITS—the longest-lived online-only Apple publication in the world— and I’m an author at Take Control, where I write about things like iOS and iPadOS, home automation, Apple Notes, and Apple TV.
This odd pairing makes little sense on the surface, like strawberries and mustard. Apple makes high-end, proprietary, and somewhat delicate products that are a nightmare to repair. But during last week’s Apple event, these worlds collided when Apple announced a series of new products centered around disaster preparedness:
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Crash detection: New sensors in the iPhone 14, Apple Watch Series 8, and the second-generation Apple Watch SE can detect when you’ve been in an automobile accident and call emergency services automatically.
Apple Watch wayfinding: The redesigned Compass app—available on the Apple Watch Series 5 and later—lets you mark waypoints as you navigate. So if you wander into the woods with your Apple Watch, you can set waypoints as you go, and if you get lost you can simply navigate back to each one to find your way out.
Emergency SOS via satellite: By far the coolest new feature of the iPhone 14 line, Emergency SOS lets you tap into Globalstar’s satellite network to call emergency services and notify emergency contacts when you don’t have cellular access. There are some limitations: you must have a clear, open sky, point the iPhone at the satellite, and messages must be short, but it’s still a very cool and potentially life-saving feature.
Apple Watch Ultra: Apple’s new chonky and rugged Apple Watch promises superior durability and battery life (though still a fraction of the battery life of competing devices from Garmin), lasting multiple days on a single charge. It also has a special Action button to quickly set waypoints as you navigate (among other things).
It was an interesting set of features given my peculiar niche. I know many Apple employees follow my work—maybe I had an influence? Probably not, but it’s fun to consider.
Welcome to the Party, Apple
Predictably, at least for me, Apple was immediately attacked for “fear-mongering.” Here are some sample headlines:
CNBC: “Apple event this year had an unusually dark undertone as it leaned into emergency features for a dangerous world”
CNN: “Apple's latest products and features take aim at our greatest fears”
Fast Company: “Apple used to sell wonder. Now it sells fear”
The Verge: “In Apple’s world, you’ll die without its watch”
Why is it that simply saying, “Bad things happen, have a plan to deal with them” draws so much scorn? Curiously, Apple has always sold the Apple Watch as a health device that can warn you of heart conditions, but no one attacked Apple for spreading fear about health issues.
While I’m not sure that these features are compelling enough to upgrade your existing gear, the fact is that these are real problems. Since 2020, drivers have grown increasingly erratic, and the statistics back that up. I regularly see obviously drunk drivers, people driving on the wrong side of the road, and motorists speeding through stop signs. I can’t pinpoint the exact cause, but it’s bad enough that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has issued a warning about it, calling this year’s statistics “absolutely devastating.”
Fatal automotive accidents happen literally every day. This isn’t scare-mongering. It’s not a made-up or distant fear. For millions of families, it’s a fact of life. How many have died who would have lived if they’d received prompt medical care? Crash detection may not be a “sexy” feature, but if it saves just one life (and it will), that’s an epic win—both for victims and Apple’s PR department. I’m as cynical about Apple as anyone, but it seems to be the only big tech company that actively works to help its customers live happier healthier lives1.
I don’t know when I’ll replace my iPhone 11 Pro or Apple Watch Series 4, but I’ll be glad to have the new crash detection feature. Thankfully, I no longer commute and haven’t experienced an automobile accident in years, but this is a legitimately useful feature.
While I’m sure hikers dying in the wild isn’t nearly as common as automobile accidents, it is very much a real problem. As I watched Apple announce its new Emergency SOS feature, my mind immediately flashed to the tragic story of Alexander Lofgren and Emily Henkel, who got lost in Death Valley last year. Lofgren died after a fall. Henkel lived but spent days on a rock with a broken ankle and her boyfriend’s dead body.
A similar story happened just recently in California’s Santa Ynez Mountains, after 29-year-old Tim Sgrignoli died while seeking water for his girlfriend and himself.
Every day, cocksure men wander into the wilderness far less prepared than they think they are. Most get lucky or you’d hear many more stories like this, but it’s still very much a real problem. And most of these poor adventurers don’t think to bring a ham radio or satellite communicator, but I can almost guarantee they have a smartphone.
A More Dangerous World
CNBC’s article had an interesting line: “We may be seeing the outlines of a new messaging strategy at Apple: Its devices are the ones you want when things go wrong.”
Personally, I think it’s smart business because so much is going wrong. The world is demonstrably more dangerous than it was a decade ago:
Seemingly uncontrollable inflation that’s making it hard for families to make ends meet (or buy fancy Apple products)
The waning influence of the United States. Say what you will about American Empire, but it has been a stabilizing force in the postwar period, and we don’t know what the world looks like without it.
Many fear American democracy is hanging by a thread, we’re facing perhaps the most tumultuous presidential election since 1860, and many experts fear a possible second civil war
We’re living in dangerous times. For much of human history, what we’re experiencing would be called “normal,” but for those of us from younger generations, we’ve never seen the world in such a state. Steve Jobs always preached skating to where the puck is going, and that’s exactly what Apple is doing. And the puck is not headed toward a happy place.
I’m often accused of being an Apple fanboy, but I’ve never let Apple off the hook for partnering with abusive suppliers (Google “foxconn suicide nets”), screwing over independent developers (“Sherlocking” and shady App Store practices), milking users for revenue via endless subscription services, and taking control away from users through App Store censorship and locked-down systems. That said, I think the company has done more good than harm, and as far as profit-maximizing corporations go, it’s one of the better ones with many employees who have good intentions. That said, it’s still a profit-maximizing corporation.