At Apple's product event, a focus on privacy, environment, health

The event, held Monday at the company's headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., was split between the unveiling of new products – including a new iPhone and iPad – and a discussion of the tech giant's broader social goals.

Stephen Lam/Reuters
Apple CEO Tim Cook (L) views a new iPad Pro during an event at the Apple headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., on March 21, 2016. The company devoted part of its product launch to focusing on its broader goals of environmental sustainability, improving healthcare and customers' privacy.

From unveiling a prototype robot that harvests reusable materials from an old iPhone to reiterating its policy on the need for strong encryption, Apple used much of its product launch event on Monday to focus on looking outward toward its larger goals.

The tech giant had been rumored to be unveiling a relatively modest suite of new products and upgrades during the event at its Cupertino Calif., headquarters, including a new 4-inch iPhone SE, new watchbands for the Apple Watch, and an iPad Pro model. 

But during the relatively short event, the launch of those products seemed to take a backseat to a closer look at three of the company’s key priorities — environmental sustainability, technological innovations in healthcare, and privacy.

The focus beyond products was immediately apparent. “Normally we don’t spend a lot of time looking back,” chief executive Tim Cook said as the event began, describing a video that looked at its innovations over nearly 40 years.

But, noting that a billion of the company’s devices were now in use around the world, Mr. Cook said, “with that comes a significant responsibility.”

The company has made large strides in its goal of exclusively using renewable energy as a power source for its facilities, said Lisa Jackson, the company’s executive vice president of sustainability.

Apple says 93 percent of its offices and retail stores across the globe are now powered by renewable energy. It’s currently using 100 percent renewable energy in the US, including at large data storage centers.

The company says it was able to power 100 percent of its operations in China – including 34 retail stores – using a 40 megawatt solar farm in China’s Sichuan Province. In Singapore, it achieved that goal using rooftop-mounted solar panels.

Its new destructive robot, known as Liam, marked a more experimental effort to tackle the issue of precious metals and materials in many of the company’s devices that often go to waste.

The robot would pull apart used phones and mine them for key metals such as lithium, silver, and cobalt.

Tech companies’ use of cobalt has been at the center of a controversy over whether hardware companies were receiving their supplies from mining operations that employed child labor, particularly in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“Ultimately our goal is to allow us to create breakthroughs that allow us to reuse those products in our own devices,” said Ms. Jackson, who previously served as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Apple also unveiled wide-ranging updates to its Health and ResearchKit applications, which aim to provide tools to allow researchers to conduct large studies of medical conditions – such as diabetes, Parkinson's Disease, and autism – and provide better communication tools for doctors and patients.

A new suite of tools, known as CareKit, would allow people to access apps that could help them better measure how their medical care was progressing. They could then use an Apple device to update records in real time and share information with a doctor, said Jeff Williams, Apple’s chief operating officer.

"We thought our work was largely done, but what became clear to us later is that the very same tools used to advance medical research can also be used to help people with their care," he added.

As expected, the company unveiled a new iPhone model, the iPhone SE, which physically resembles the earlier iPhone 5S, but includes the faster A9 processor and 12 megapixel camera and 4K video recording offered on the company’s more expensive iPhone 6S.

The iPhone SE, which will be available to order on Mar. 24 and begin shipping on the 31st, starts at $399.

With its new iPad Pro model, which boasts a 9.7” screen — the same size as the original iPad — the company leaned more heavily on its promise that the tablet could replace a traditional laptop, especially for business users or artists drawn to its stylus, the Apple Pencil.

The new iPad Pro still comes at a relatively hefty price tag, beginning at $599 for a 32GB model, while a 128GB model is $749.

But in a more unexpected move, Cook, the chief executive, began the event with a strongly-worded note about the company’s commitment to privacy.

“We need to decide as a nation how much power the government should have over our data and over our privacy,” Cook said, referring to the company’s growing battle with the FBI over unlocking an iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino terrorists.

Apple has resisted a federal judge’s order requiring it to create what it says would be new software that would amount to a “skeleton key” to unlock a broader swath of iPhone models. The two sides are set to meet at a hearing to hear evidence in the case on Tuesday.

In making its case, which has earned Apple a variety of supporters from across the political spectrum, the company argues that the code itself could be considered a form of speech.

Other executives echoed the company’s commitment to privacy regarding the CareKit apps and customers’ medical information.

“We did not expect to be in this position, at odds with our own government, but we believe strongly that we have a responsibility to help you protect your data and protect your privacy,” Cook said. “This is an issue that impacts all of us and we will not shrink from this responsibility.”

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