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

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

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.