Apple Inc Chief Executive Tim Cook's refusal to comply with the U.S. government's request to unlock an iPhone of one of the San Bernardino, California attackers drew strong reaction from critics and supporters this week, but is unclear how the decision will affect potential buyers of the company's products.
In an open letter to customers, Cook vowed to fight a court order from a Los Angeles judge to provide "reasonable technical assistance" to investigators wanting access to the phone of Rizwan Farook, a shooter in the San Bernardino attack that killed 14. Cook said complying with the government's request would set a dangerous precedent that could ultimately undermine the security of its iPhones.
Users supporting and opposing Apple's position flooded Twitter with rival hashtags #thankyouapple and #boycottapple and Facebook users wrote lengthy posts on the move.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted his support for Cook on Thursday, joining groups like Amnesty International in applauding Cook's stance. Conservative pundit Ann Coulter was among Cook's many critics, suggesting in a social media post that Apple made the move "for PR" purposes.
Branding expert Allen Adamson, founder of Brand Simple Consulting, praised Cook's forthright note to customers.
"Corporate leaders are better off having a very clear, principled view that customers can either agree or disagree with rather than having ambiguity and lack of clarity as to what the company stands for," said Adamson, whose New York-based firm advises companies on volatile branding matters.
Adamson and other branding experts said Cook's open letter was important in getting ahead of the debate, even if its users do not necessarily support the company's decision.
Apple has come under fire from Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates like Donald Trump, but the company has also rallied support among privacy advocates.
"This is a lightning rod issue in the country right now and it is hugely emotional and polarizing. It is still unclear how it will connect with consumers," said Adamson.
Other analysts also pointed to Apple's brand power as a likely shield against any immediate backlash from consumers. A recent survey of 44,000 consumers by branding consulting firm Brand Keys Inc found the company leading other major tech brands in virtually all categories from devices to services on customer engagement and loyalty.
"They have an extraordinary high level of emotional engagement with consumers," said Brand Keys president Robert Passikoff.
A steady stream of customers visited the Apple store in downtown San Francisco on Thursday, and shoppers seemed unfazed by the controversy.
"I buy from Apple because of the product quality. This doesn't affect our decision to buy from them," said Esther Stearns, a retired tech worker.