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Tim Cook and Being Politically Correct

In the days when Steve Jobs ruled Apple, he very rarely ventured forth to make comments outside of a few interviews and those famous keynotes. Politics were not part of the picture. A notable exception included a blog calling for the end to DRM on iTunes. He wrote, “Imagine a world where every online store sells DRM-free music encoded in open licensable formats. In such a world, any player can play music purchased from any store, and any store can sell music which is playable on all players. This is clearly the best alternative for consumers, and Apple would embrace it in a heartbeat.”

Well, it wasn’t long before the music industry was persuaded — or coerced — to go along with his demands, and iTunes songs became free of DRM. With it came iTunes Plus, a higher quality version of the AAC files that were said to be much closer in quality to a CD. Some said indistinguishable. Of course, there were also several price tiers, topping out at $1.29 for a single track rather than 99 cents. There had to be give and take to get what Apple wanted.

In short order, even rival music systems no longer had DRM. However, movies and TV shows still carry unbearable restrictions, due to the intransigence of the entertainment companies that perhaps believed the music industry caved too quickly to Apple’s demands.

Later on, in response to requests that Apple support Flash on iOS, he went on to explain how Flash was a 100% proprietary format, and about its miserable record for security. The beta version of Flash for Android never left beta. Mobile operating systems supported HTML5 instead, and nowadays Flash is restricted to the desktop. But not completely, as more and more web developers are moving to open standards, even though that sometimes entails a fair amount of work.

In these two cases, Jobs’ comments strictly impacted Apple’s products and services. He stayed away from politics.

Tim Cook, however, has gone off in a more open direction. In addition to addressing the working conditions at Apple’s contract manufacturers in Asia and other matters, he has now entered the contentious political arena. His recent editorial for the Washington Post lambasts the legislators and the governor of Indiana for passing what he regarded as an overly restrictive so-called religious freedom law.

But Cook wasn’t alone. His views were embraced by other companies, commentators and sports teams. When a similar law was approved in Arkansas, the CEO of Walmart, that state’s largest employer, took the hint and spoke out against it. Within short order, the governor of Arkansas decided he needed to return the bill to the legislature for reworking to make the bill more acceptable. The governor of Indiana had previously agreed that state’s law should be tweaked.

Now the facts around such contentious matters aren’t as important as the fact that Cook felt it was important enough to speak out, and to assert that Apple fully supported him.

As you might predict, certain political talking heads have attacked Cook for daring to speak his mind. What about Apple customers who do not agree with him, they said? Would they decide to buy products from someone else? Should it even matter what a corporate executive thinks when you pay your hard-earned money for one of their products?

Some of those talking heads went on to complain about Apple selling products in countries where individual freedoms are extremely limited. But that’s true for all companies who sell products in those countries. Besides, Cook is a citizen of the United States, and Apple’s headquarters are based in the U.S. So shouldn’t they have the right to comment on issues that impact this country? Where would they come off attacking what is done in other countries?

Clearly, Apple doesn’t appear to be concerned that some customers might give up their iPads, iPhones and Macs because they don’t agree with the political views of the CEO or the corporation in general.

Now it doesn’t matter what you or I think. The executives of any company have the perfect right to express their points of view. By the same token, celebrities, people in the entertainment industry, have long taken on political or social causes. Sometimes it impacts the box office receipts or TV ratings, but usually it doesn’t seem to matter.

And of course one actor actually ran and was elected for the positions of governor and president. Did it impact his career when he first decided to run for political office, or, as some suggest, was Ronald Reagan’s career at a low ebb, where he was mostly doing TV shows, before entering politics? That came at a time when TV wasn’t taken near as seriously as film. But I wouldn’t presume to comment, except to suggest that any citizen has the right to express their point of view about any subject. Do you really care about the politics and beliefs of an entertainer when you decide whether to watch a movie or TV show? Should you?

Certainly we are seeing Apple as a more open and activist company, and it’s no doubt a work in progress. So I do expect we’ll see more statements and guest editorials from Cook as the need arises. Nobody should be surprised.