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Artificial intelligence isn’t going to be the end of Apple

Updated Dec 19th, 2018 9:17PM EST
Apple iPhone Siri AI

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Since 2007, I’ve read countless versions of the “Apple is doomed” argument, most of them related to the iPhone. Apple was doomed because it dared compete in the smartphone business, then it was doomed when Android came along, and then it was doomed every time a product failed to arouse the imagination of some analyst or journalist. In all this time, however, Apple has been anything but doomed. And it’s likely that will not happen in the foreseeable future.

Today’s version of “Apple is doomed” comes from well-known outspoken software developer Marco Arment, who has often shared his views on Apple’s business. His take on the matter has an “if” in it, suggesting this scenario isn’t likely to happen, but his reasoning isn’t entirely accurate.

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Arment argues that Apple could repeat BlackBerry’s fate if advanced AI becomes the new hot thing in tech. Facebook and Google have recently announced products that are based on smarter AI – and Google certainly impressed with a few of its initiatives at Google I/O last week – with Arment arguing that Apple is trailing well behind.

The developer says that AI could do to Apple what iPhone did to BlackBerry.

“The BlackBerry’s success came to an end not because RIM started releasing worse smartphones, but because the new job of the smartphone shifted almost entirely outside of their capabilities, and it was too late to catch up,” he writes. “RIM hadn’t spent years building a world-class operating system, or a staff full of great designers, or expertise in mass production of luxury-quality consumer electronics, or amazing APIs and developer tools, or an app store with millions of users with credit cards already on file, or all of the other major assets that Apple had developed over a decade (or longer) that enabled the iPhone.”

That’s right; RIM didn’t do that. It was Apple. But I think it’s troubling to think that Apple has stopped doing that, and now it’s simply riding on the iPhone’s success.

The problem with Apple is that it never announced moonshots. Yet read through its patents – which is a testament to all the crazy hardware and software innovations going on at Cupertino – and you’ll see that Apple is thinking far ahead. Not just for the iPhone, but for many other products, some of them not ever made official. Tim Cook said a few times that the company is working on stuff that’s not even rumored. It’s likely certain products will emerge from there that not only will not “doom Apple”, but which will also help it compete in a post-iPhone world.

Arment does make a solid point though — that Google and Facebook are so far ahead in AI that it’s scary. Moreover, you can’t build good AI overnight and then just unveil it during a keynote. That’s very true. Siri lags behind Google Now and the new Assistant, and it doesn’t have Facebook’s drive for bots either. But assuming that the emergence of AI from the likes of Google and Facebook will crush Apple (or the iPhone) is a stretch.

“Today, Apple’s being led properly day-to-day and doing very well overall,” Arment said. “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.”

Again, we have no idea what Apple is working on. But we do know that it’s definitely skating where the puck is going. Apple is doing VR, and it’s doing cars, according to recent reports. But we have no clear details on what kind of products and services it’s developing. Patents and company acquisitions point us in the right directions, but that doesn’t mean we have any idea what the company is creating. And it’s probably safe to say it’s not ignoring AI.

Speaking of buying its way into things let’s not forget the massive amount of cash Apple is hoarding. Imagine what all that money can do in a worst-case scenario where Apple has to buy itself out of trouble.

$3 billion was enough to buy Beats and transform it into the most popular music subscription service out there – Spotify may not like that claim – at a time when Apple’s music sales business was unable to compete against streaming services.

$1 billion got Apple a stake in a Chinese car company, and we’re not even sure what that buys Apple.

These are the biggest investments Apple made to date, but the company has quietly acquired plenty of talent in the last years, including many companies that’ll help it keep up (and overhaul) the competition.

Earlier this week, a scoop from The Information told us that Apple is about to make several major Siri-related announcements at WWDC 2016 in June, the type of products we didn’t see in leaks in rumors. Apple plans to open up Siri to developers, which should further enrich the app experience on iPhone and other devices that have Siri enabled, and it’s making a Siri standalone device that’s supposed to take on Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home.

“If Google is wrong, and computing continues to be defined by a tightly controlled grid of siloed apps that you poke a thousand times a day on a smooth rectangle of manufacturing excellence, Apple is fine,” Arment says. “They’re doing a great job of what computing is today, and what it will probably continue to be for a long time.”

“But if Google is right, that’s a big problem for Apple,” he concludes.

AI and the iPhone aren’t mutually exclusive, though.

Yes, we’re heading to a future where voice will probably be the main way to interact with a computer. But that future will still need a version of the screen. It might not be a touch-based rectangle. It might be some sort of virtual or augmented reality experience that involves either wearing a headset on your face or not. But it will definitely need the right hardware to run the AI, and that hardware will project images most of the time. AI won’t just float in the air. And just talking to a smart computer is going to be way too boring for most computer users. We’ll still want to have a visual input for most of our computing needs, especially when it comes to our leisure time.

There’s no way AI will catch Apple by surprise or kill the iPhone. But it’ll definitely shape its future. Apple will still build some of the best devices to run Google’s and Facebook’s AI for work and fun purposes, regardless of whether they’re rectangles with touchscreens or not. Surely, AI doesn’t signal Apple’s impending doom, even if Google can revolutionize computing and make it all about smart AI.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.