Could Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning be Apple's BlackBerry moment?

Siri on iPhone
Siri on iPhone

Marco Arment, bless him, has the ability to distill popular sentiment down to it's essence and post it in a way that makes every sensationalist site on the web attention-link it with self-serving abandon. Unfortunately, his point often gets lost in the pile-on that follows. This time, his point is about Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and whether companies unfettered by concerns over privacy and security have a lead Apple will find tough to follow. From Marco.org:

Today, Amazon, Facebook, and Google are placing large bets on advanced AI, ubiquitous assistants, and voice interfaces, hoping that these will become the next thing that our devices are for.If they're right — and that's a big "if" — I'm worried for Apple.Today, Apple's being led properly day-to-day and doing very well overall. But if the landscape shifts to prioritize those big-data AI services, Apple will find itself in a similar position as BlackBerry did almost a decade ago: what they're able to do, despite being very good at it, won't be enough anymore, and they won't be able to catch up.

John Gruber, writing for Daring Fireball:

I'm not sure I accept the premise that the rise of AI assistants will decrease in any way our desire for devices with screens. iPhone and Android doomed BlackBerry because people stopped buying BlackBerries. If even we accept the premise that Google Assistant is going to be a big deal that Apple won't be able to compete with, I'm not sure how that decreases demand for the devices Apple already makes.

It's tempting to equate the analogy to a loss of revenue. I was fortunate to have been part of what I consider the definitive take on how BlackBerry lost its lead in mobile. The whole thing is worth a listen, but it breaks down as follows:

  1. The founders doubled-down on hardware keyboards and data compression just as mobile began to transition to multitouch and fast connections.
  2. They hamstrung its phone development for a year to ship what was ultimately a terrible tablet.
  3. New management attempted a transition to a newly acquired operating system that had no modern interface or app ecosystem, and little chance of getting functional versions of either.
  4. Unlike Microsoft and Samsung, they had no other sources of income to fund their efforts, success or fail, post-iPhone.

Yet Apple is already deeply invested in sequential inference and digital assistants, having acquired, integrated, and re-shipped Siri half a decade ago, there no signs of existing businesses being put on hold or major external system transition being underway. And they've got billions in the bank.

It's better to equate the analogy to a loss of relevance. Take BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) or even Windows Mobile. Lack of foresight left the doors open for WhatsApp and Android, and BlackBerry and Microsoft alike faced something just as bad as failure: irrelevance.

It's not so much that people stopped buying BlackBerrys, it's that people stopped even considering them. That's the crux of the question at hand. BlackBerry bet wrong and missed out on the present of mobile. Is Apple now also betting wrong, and will the company miss out on its future?

On the surface, it appears that Apple's principles—the company's focus on privacy and security—prevents them from gathering data for AI/ML to the extent Google, Facebook, and Amazon do through digesting inconceivable amounts of user data.

Yet Siri, for all its flaws, is still a remarkable product. While Amazon is stuck doing sentence assembly for one language in one country—a relatively small problem set to solve for—Apple is handling not only multi-language and multi-national, but simultaneous multi-language in some countries. That's a much more complex and difficult problem set.

In other words, for most people in the world, in most places, for most things, Amazon isn't even in the game, and it's unclear they can get in the game in any meaningful way. So who's really behind?

The bigger question for me is whether or not Apple can balance its own AI/ML work with the very real need for privacy and security. Most people will happily sell their digital souls for convenience, but not everybody. And those of us who decline to make those deals will need a viable alternative.

As my colleague, Michael Gartenberg, wrote earlier today:

Let's be clear: for Apple, success has never required market dominance. The Mac has made countless billions in revenue despite only owning a single digit of PC market share. iPod did dominate the portable music player market, of course, but one of the most valuable businesses of all time, the iPhone, does not.

Even if AI/ML are as important to the future of mobile as multitouch and LTE are to the present, and even if Apple is behind the internet giants, unlike BlackBerry, it may not matter long term.

Apple doesn't have to lead the bot uprising, it simply has to provide a good enough experience that the sum total of the company's offering remains compelling to a valuable segment of the market.

And if Apple does more than that, even if the company artificially thinks different, things will get really interesting.

Rene Ritchie
Contributor

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

26 Comments
  • AI or not, the more important question is: can apple keep reinventing itself and enter new lucrative business areas? They seem great a perfectioning. Otherwise they are little daring.
  • if anything, I don't see Apple as a "first to market", rather I see them as inventing a market. Nothing Apple has ever done was brand new, it was just built to be consumer friendly so that it seemed new. I can see Google and others trying to push an AI that people reject because it scares them. Apple will develop Siri into something useful but non-threatening for the average person. Right now AI in devices doesn't work well enough for most people to care. When they start working well, we'll see more personalization and get a better idea of what the market wants vs. what one company wants.
  • i think apple has no choice to check on there customers to get a better experience to us. with google i am getting way better information when my flight leaves or my package is shipped and so on. google now is really handy and now with the assistance is coming apple should be scared a bit
  • If google's AI is available on an iphone, apple should be fine. The problem I see with apple is that googles services in general are superior to what apple offers. From gmail to google now, google is offering a better experience for end users.
  • Now that the hardware gap is essentially closed between android and ios, and both operating systems are very polished and easy to use, it will be online services and probably AI that become the more important differentiators. So far Google is ahead, though Apple certainly isn't out of the game.
  • Couldn't agree with you more. Android and IOS specifications are no longer differentiating factors for consumers. It's basic infrastructural support at this point. Google as an infrastructure is well established in the data collection and formulation arena. Not to say that Apple doesn't have a platform that is well suited to provided similar services but, in all honesty, Google is already there. That is a market foothold that is irrefutable. Apple can no longer rely on "doing what they do well" but now has to sustain a device "concierge" functionality that is quickly becoming a discerning factor in choosing a smart phone.
  • Google is way ahead of apple in the AI department, as someone who owns both an iphone and an android phone (6s plus and nexus 6p) it's not even a close call which one is more useful. I honestly can't even use siri for simple things without getting frustrated and is a main reason I'm selling my 6s plus and never getting another apple product. Android passed them up a while ago with most things, both software and for the most part hardware, and they aren't slowing down. Apple on the other hand, slowed down a long time ago.
  • Why I'm not surprised !!! Only took couple of days. Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • What are you surprised by?
  • Ehhhhh, I don't know. While I'm sure that Google's beefed up assistant will work fine on iOS, it will lack the first party integration that Siri currently has. If it's AI capabilities just plain perform better on Android, it becomes a major selling point that to get the 'full' Google experience vs. the 80% sandboxed Google experience, then Android is a better choice. This is ESPECIALLY true if third party integrations become a bigger deal and if Siri keeps refusing third party access while its competitors embrace it. Apple is falling further behind in the services department which is the big 'x factor' right now. I know some here are anti-Google, but not all of us. I think there's a legitimate point to be made that Apple's single minded focus on privacy over everything else will in the end leave them with a less capable AI product. All the other tech titans are of the position that for AI/ML to really reach its potential, it has to know more about us. If people aren't comfortable with that, then fine, as long as they're content with a less capable digital assistant. I'm not OK with that. It's like stepping into the past.
  • You've hit on something I've been thinking about for a while now. Apple is very protective of its ecosystem and doesn't like to allow third parties in, at least not to the extent that it allows its own products to have access. It allows tight integration of its own products and services, but it seems to do its level best to lock others out, or at least to limit what they can do.. There's absolutely no reason Google Assistant can't work on the iPhone the same way Siri does, except that Apple won't allow it. There's no reason you couldn't buy an Android Wear device and allow it to do the same things on iOS that it can do on Android, except that Apple won't allow it to function that way, yet an Apple watch will work just fine. What it all comes down to is the fact that, with such a walled garden, Apple has to develop most everything in it, or it simply won't happen. What that does is force people to choose either the Apple hardware or the full-featured Google services, since they can't have both. What Apple needs to do is open up its platform to the third-party apps, services, and devices that people want to use on it.
  • Apple hardware + Google services would be a compelling combination, and that was the original vision for the iPhone. But I just don't think such a partnership would work out long-term. Both companies have too much at stake to rely on another party for a crucial piece of their product offerings. And of course the AI endgame is to completely abstract away the GUI anyway, and where does that leave Apple? Personally I'm skeptical that voice interfaces will ever come to dominate completely - but they could eventually be good enough for a lot of jobs that our phones do today. To stretch Jobs' pickup-truck metaphor, maybe in the future the phone or the iPad is the truck, and an invisible, always-listening voice assistant is the car?
  • A dedicated Siri chip can solve the problem of intelligent assistance by scouring your emails, calendar and browser history without compromising privacy by keeping all that data processing local like the Secure Enclave keeps your finger print local. Siri processing is done in the cloud because a phone hasn't had the power to do it efficiently but future improvements on mobile CPUs could see the introduction of a dedicated Siri chip. Then Apple would have both an intelligent assistant *and* privacy which neither Google nor Amazon can claim.
  • Great idea, hope this is what ends up happening. I see young people these days being far to trusting of all this big data and lack of privacy.
  • Maybe, but part of the power of Google Now is that it learns from all users to improve the experience for everyone.
  • I think Siri is just fine and I am sure they are coming up with ways to improve it. At this point I do not think a lot of people even take advantage of it yet. Apple will see how it works and make adjustments as needed. Like others have said I am sure we will be able to use it on iPhones like every other Google app.
  • Apple is not run by a bunch of new age religious zealots who believe in that singularity day where the machine intelligence would gloriously rise to salvage humanity.
  • If Apple receives data only by channels that are end-to-end encrypted and anonimised it can machine-learn more effectively than it does today, and build on that increased effectiveness to process and analyze more effectively in a secure 'enclave' on their device. Not as hard as squaring the circle.
  • One need not be a religious zealot to recognize a mathematically predictable curve.
  • I think that the amount of artificial intelligence possible is not equatable to the amount of data you are able to collect. As a matter of fact I think that collection of more data only makes it harder to determine what data is relevant to learning a certain skill. Take voice recognition for example. In fact only the data from the person speaking is relevant after basic skills have been learned by such an algorithm. I suspect similar constraints are valid in a lot of other cases. Cue targetted ads in for example Twitter. Most if not all of them are totally irrelevant for me. Is Facebook any better in that respect? Nope.
    So in conclusion I do not agree with Arment that not being able to do unfettered data collection will be a disadvantage to Apple. Maybe the opposite will be true.
  • This all makes no difference to Apple because Google makes money off eyeballs and they want their services and apps on as many devices as possible - that's why nearly all of Google's stuff is available on the iPhone, some of which was even initially better on iOS than it was on Android! So whatever Google comes up with, it'll release a version of it for iOS and Apple will still sell tens of millions of iPhones. While Google sells a small handful of their own Nexus devices, it's a drop in the bucket compared to iPhones and Samsungs; Google sees devices simply as portals to Google's software offerings, and don't really care if you use a Galaxy or iPhone.
  • Not sure why Facebook is mentioned and not Microsoft. Does Facebook have any AI presence?
  • They are getting chat bots Posted from my Nexus 6P
  • That's barely comparable to the likes of Cortana. Hardly worth mentioning I would think.
  • Voice-fed assistants only work for those who are verbal. For those who prefer to communicate non-verbally or for whom verbal skills are not their strong suit, Siri, Echo, etc. are all essentially useless.
  • To give customer the best service apple has to start reading emails from there customer.i love Google's service and what it does. With Google home and Google assistant even more. I just wanna see the people when apple reads the emails what they say about privacy.