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Technology Apple announces slew of controls to help with smartphone addiction

A visitor uses his iPhone X to take photos of the stage at the Apple Worldwide Developer conference in San Jose, Calif., on Monday.

ELIJAH NOUVELAGE/REUTERS

Apple Inc. has unveiled a slate of controls to curb smartphone addiction and make it harder for users to be tracked online, even as the company rolled out new features designed to keep people tethered to their devices.

The updates to the tech giant’s operating systems, which apply across Apple’s family of phones, computers, televisions and watches, highlight the fine line that technology firms are now being forced to walk between privacy and usability amid a growing public backlash over issues such as tech addiction and online privacy.

Apple’s senior vice-president of software engineering, Craig Federighi, told the company’s annual software conference in San Jose that Apple’s new mobile operating system, iOS 12, would allow users to monitor and limit the amount of time they spent on the phones and tablets. The changes include a feature that lets users see a summary of how much time they have spent on their phones that day. Users can also set limits on the amount of time they spend each day on individual apps, while parents will be able to monitor their children’s smartphone usage remotely.

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“For some of us, it’s become such a habit that we might not even recognize just how distracted we’ve become,” Mr. Federighi told an audience of more than 6,000 developers.

Google announced similar changes that allow users to set time limits on apps running its Android mobile operating system.

The moves come as Apple has been under fire from some technologists and investors over concerns that the company’s devices may be fuelling addiction and mental-health issues, particularly among children and teens.

Earlier this year, investment firm Jana Partners and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, which collectively control roughly US$2-billion of Apple’s shares, published a letter urging the smartphone giant to create new tools to protect children from the harmful effects of digital technology.

Jana Partners applauded the changes. “We think this is a clear win, not just for shareholders given how these new tools will strengthen Apple’s ecosystem, but for parents, kids, and society in the years to come,” the firm said in an e-mailed statement.

Apple’s privacy and security updates are part of a calculated move to prioritize long-term customer loyalty over shorter-term metrics such as engagement, said Horace Dediu, an Apple analyst with Asymco. “It’s an interesting thing to do as a company that prides itself on having a product that is heavily used,” he said. “Here’s Apple telling the world: We want you to use our products less.”

In a nod to the continuing controversy over Facebook’s data-sharing practices, Apple executives also unveiled stricter controls for how websites collect data on people using the Safari web browser. The company said it would place new restrictions on how apps can access users’ cameras and microphones, and make it more difficult for data-collection firms to create identifiable “fingerprints” of individual devices.

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“Data companies are clever and relentless,” Mr. Federighi said, adding that it will become “dramatically more difficult” for firms to track users through their devices.

Apple has sought to position itself as a leader in digital privacy, and chief executive officer Tim Cook has publicly sparred with Mark Zuckerberg over the Facebook CEO’s data-sharing controversies. On Monday, company executives used Facebook as an example of new features that will require users to give permission before social media firms can install cookies that track people across the web.

But even as the global hardware behemoth rolled out new security settings, most of its focus remained on creating technology that will allow its legions of developers to build products for Apple’s massive App Store. The company said it now has more than 20 million developers who have earned more than US$100-billion creating apps for Apple devices.

Among the features designed to keep users glued to their devices, the company showed off new augmented reality features that blend the real and online worlds – including a demonstration of a new Lego children’s playtime app that allows kids to use their phones to interact with toy models they had built.

Apple also unveiled new features for Siri, its voice command service, as well as group video chats over FaceTime. It will also allow users to create emojis of themselves – animated cartoon likenesses – similar to those already announced by Facebook and Snap and rival smartphone maker Samsung. “This conference was all about courting the developer community, which is the linchpin to the future success of Apple,” wrote analyst Daniel Ives of GBH Insights.

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