Just as public attention to "Battery-gate" dies down, Apple faces another controversy. Two large investors are publicly calling for the company to do something about the addictive nature of its products and their impact on children's developing brains.

A letter to Apple earlier this month from Jana Partners and the California State Teachers' Retirement System, who together own about $2 billion of Apple stock, reads:

"There is a growing body of evidence that, for at least some of the most frequent young users, this may be having unintentional negative consequences."

They then warn the company that "growing society unease...at some point is likely to impact even Apple."

Apple's response was measured, reassuring the world that they take this issue seriously, have had various parental controls in iOS for a while, and are working on more.

And really, this isn't an Apple-specific issue. Every smart phone maker could be impacted by this issue.

Still, should Apple consider doing more? To answer, let's look at two other companies that faced similar challenges and responded very differently: Toyota and McDonald's.

Toyota's Unintended Acceleration

In the mid-2000s, Toyota vehicles started to be involved in accidents where the cars accelerated despite either the gas pedal not being pushed or even when the brake pedal was pushed (called Sudden Unintended Acceleration), with one such accident leading to death of a family of four.

While Toyota's initial response was to blame drivers for not securing floor mats properly, more potential causes were brought in, including a claim that the electronic throttle control unit was the actual cause. Conclusive evidence was never found, even with NASA investigating. And in some accidents where people claimed they hit the brakes, data recorders in the car showed the drivers were actually pressing gas pedal alone.

Toyota ended up recalled 10 million vehicles and proactively issued a complete stop sale in 2010 despite there being no finding of an issue. That is, they stopped selling everything they made, even if the product was not implicated in the situation.

It then introduced its Safety Sense feature set, which put higher-end safety features into the standard equipment list of even its cheapest vehicles.

It was not a good time for the company, and they have since paid over $2.5 billion in penalties and damages, including a fine for covering up facts during the event.

While that all sounds bad, $2.5 billion is a drop in the bucket for Toyota, and the company is still thriving today. Brand-value ranking company Interbrand just named Toyota the most valuable car brand in the world. Again. And Toyota is consistently one of the top three largest car makers globally.

This example suggests taking a proactive approach to a potentially wide-spread problem is wise. The negatives came from the wavering they did--that was why they paid fines--while the proactive moves are often cited in car magazines as a leg up Toyotas have over competitors who charge dearly for similar safety features or do not even offer them.

McDonald's

In 2003, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit against McDonald's for causing obesity. Fast food and "Big Food" companies have long been vilified for selling addictive products that lead people to consume in excess, which drives the nation's obesity and diabetes epidemic.

Do many people wish unhealthy options were not as widely and readily available, and believe restricting them would lead to a healthier population? Yes.

However, this is also exactly the point of selling food. You make it taste really good and your marketing makes people desire it, so they buy it. It's up to us to choose whether we consume it, and in what quantity.

Apparently McDonald's felt the same, and so did the judge hearing the case. McDonald's did nothing of consequence to change the healthiness of their food (they added food facts and some salad options, but they also added the McGriddle; it was not until 2014 that they really started to adjust more of their menu).

Consumer preferences are shifting, and McDonald's has struggled as these shifts occur. But the lawsuit did not lead to the company's demise, and proactive response would have been hugely disruptive to the company's very existence for no reason.

What Should Apple Do?

Apple's situation is closer to McDonald's than Toyota's. This is about the addictive nature of the product being harmful to our wellbeing. It hits on the question of who is to blame--the company for offering the product we struggle to stop consuming, or consumers not controlling our consumption?

Unlike with Toyota, this isn't about Apple alone--like it wasn't really just about McDonald's. Google, Facebook, and others could be brought into the mix just as Frito-Lay, Yum!, Kraft, and Burger King would have been in the food debate.

In other words: Apple is making the right call at this time to offer ways to control consumption. Now, it's on us as users and parents of smaller users to control that usage.

Published on: Jan 23, 2018