June 02, 2011

Apple's Missed Identity Play: "Sign In With Apple"

One of the greatest tug of wars amidst leading Web companies today is that for ownership of your identity, through your personal profile, or pushing you to "Sign in with" their credentials. You may sign in with Twitter, Facebook, Google or OpenID, and enable those services to certify it's you. One of the most successful tech companies out there who never comes up in this conversation is Apple, and it's incredible to think how easily they could have converted its army of Mac loyalists (myself included) to "Sign in With Mac", carrying the Apple flag forward as a badge of honor. More than a decade after getting my .Mac e-mail account (and later signing up my wife to do the same), I am splitting my email activity fifty-fifty with GMail and haven't gained much reason on Apple's side to double down on Cupertino.

When Steve Jobs unveiled iTools at MacWorld San Francisco in 2000, one of the primary offerings of the then-free product was an e-mail address ending in Mac.com. Fresh off success with the 1998 launch of iMac, and still a year away from the debut of the iPod, the company still had its most loyal followers "Thinking Different", and sending people messages with my Mac.com account was cool. It told everybody who would get a note from me that I had chosen Apple. Even when I would have to spell out my e-mail address on the phone, I'd always tell people... "M.A.C. As in Macintosh" in case it wasn't obvious.

Steve Jobs Introducing iTools (MWSF 2000)

But for a variety of reasons, the Mac.com address wasn't especially capitalized on. The service, initially free of charge, controversially converted to an annual paid service by 2002, alongside tools such as iDisk and .Mac home pages, and later rebranded as MobileMe in mid-2008, pushing people even further away from the allegiance with Apple but instead to theoretically more personal Me.com address.

When Apple initially made the move away from free Mac.com addresses for all, the message was that the free mail service was being abused, which no doubt cost them money and headaches - on top of costs for iDisk storage. But of course it also decimated the potential audience of users, most of whom already had free email accounts from somewhere else, be it Hotmail, Yahoo, Netscape or their ISP. Using a Mac.com account almost seems like an artifact unless you're a clear Apple loyalist.

In parallel, while Apple put MobileMe/iTools/Mac.com/whatever on the backburner, the company experienced incredible success with the iTunes ecosystem. Every iTunes customer has an Apple ID (or signs in with AOL), and has trusted Apple with their credit card details, as iTunes expanded from its initial offering of music to music videos, TV shows, movies, books, and of course, mobile applications for iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad. So Apple's effectively sitting on one of the most actively spending user databases in the world, but one that isn't leveraged elsewhere on the Web. There's no "Sign in With Apple" on major sites like the New York Times or CNN. There's no "Sign in With Apple" on Amazon.com or eBay.
iTunes Knows My Apple ID, but the Rest of the Web Doesn't

The fight for identity relevance between the major players of the Web, including Facebook, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn and others is critical, especially as signing in with one's identity brings additional privileges. Signing in with Facebook brings you your social graph and their history as you find what articles are popular. Signing in with Google is starting to bear fruit with their +1 initiative, but it's early days. Signing in with Twitter gives you the option to follow people on downstream sites if they have Twitter @Anywhere installed. But Apple's not playing in a place where they absolutely could have an impact.

Much has been made of Apple's perceived struggles when it comes to Web services. Those of us who have been watching Apple seemingly forever recall the false start of iReviews, where people could review Web sites on the Internet, the aborted launch of iCards for greeting cards through iTools, the lukewarm approach to .Mac Home pages, and the constant renaming of the email service. This is by no means discounting their fantastic success in hardware and some software, but they could be my identity. I, and many others like me, at one time and even today, want to tell the world we are Mac people, and we could sign in with Apple. But we aren't.

With iCloud to be presented at WWDC this next week, we're moving even further away from the naming of .Mac and what it meant to be a Mac person, especially if this product suite gets its fourth name in a decade or so. No doubt they'll keep shipping some great stuff, but even we Mac people are going to sign in with somebody else all around the Web.