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There’s a problem with iPhone AI that might hurt Apple more than it’s willing to admit

Published Jun 10th, 2024 12:45PM EDT
iPhone 15 Plus Dynamic Island.
Image: Christian de Looper for BGR

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The iPhone is the only product in Apple’s lineup where Apple goes out of its way to avoid mentioning the amount of RAM. Apple has continued to upgrade the capacity and speed of its iPhone RAM over the years. Also, iOS is optimized to work with more limited memory availability. Often, the iPhone beats rivals with much more RAM in speed tests thanks to Apple’s ability to control the hardware and software experience like that. As a longtime iPhone user, I’ve never felt like the iPhone had trouble handling what I throw at it, even when using iPhones that were several years old.

But no matter how fast and smooth the iPhone is, Apple probably doesn’t like to mention RAM capacity for marketing reasons. Android phones used to have (and need) much more RAM. However, most recently, some vendors have tempered the memory upgrades, with Samsung being one example.

But now that the age of AI is here, Apple’s RAM strategy for the iPhone might hurt the iPhone more than the company is willing to admit. The language models that power on-device AI — which is the kind of private AI that Apple wants to offer users in iOS 18 — might come with minimum RAM requirements. That likely means that older iPhone models won’t get the latest and greatest AI features from Apple. After all, the only way to upgrade the RAM will be to have an iPhone 15 Pro or to buy an iPhone 16 this fall.

Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman has said more than once in his iOS 18 predictions that you’ll need an iPhone 15 Pro or later to handle on-device AI. I noted earlier that I might not try iOS 18 while it’s in beta if I don’t have access to the most exciting new AI features available in the release.

Furthermore, I mused that iOS could always feature a dynamic approach to AI processing based on rumors that the operating system will assess the hardware capabilities before processing AI requests. I wouldn’t be surprised if some AI features that are processed on-device on iPhone 15 Pro and later models get cloud processing for anything else that can run iOS 18.

Gurman didn’t mention anything about these handsets’ RAM. Still, if you’re familiar with iPhone hardware, you probably know the iPhone 15 Pro and 15 Pro Max are the only iPhones in history featuring 8GB of RAM. The iPhone 16 models will all pack 8GB of RAM.

Memory seems to be the bottleneck for on-device processing, a detail Apple insider Ming-Chi Kuo noted in his predictions for Apple’s WWDC 2024 event on Monday.

Specifically, Kuo said that Apple’s development issues with its large language models (LLM) for the iPhone. Memory is a problem for on-device AI abilities:

My latest survey indicates that Apple is developing its cloud-based and on-device LLMs. However, it is unlikely that Apple will announce development progress that significantly exceeds market expectations at WWDC 2024. Cloud-based LLMs require more time to train, and the development of on-device LLMs is currently limited by the iPhone 16’s 8GB of DRAM.

Some reports late last year said that smartphones will need 12GB of RAM to handle on-device AI. I wondered at the time whether the iPhone 16 models would get such a memory upgrade.

My answer came soon enough in the form of an Apple AI breakthrough that allowed Apple to optimize on-device AI for devices with limited resources. I said then that Apple probably won’t give the iPhone 16 a major RAM boost because of that. But that’s speculation.

Interestingly, Kuo says that iOS 18’s AI features aren’t enough to drive a big iPhone replacement demand. His supply chain checks suggest iPhone 16 shipments will decline by about 5% in the second half of 2024 compared to iPhone 15 shipments last year. Kuo says, “Apple may believe that iOS 18 will have limited help in driving replacement demand.” But WWDC reception might change shipment estimates.

I’m certain Apple will want to bring its Apple Intelligence suite of AI features to as many iPhones as possible. Preferably, it’ll be on-device AI for many features.

But I also think Apple must regret dealing with hardware limitations like RAM capacity on older iPhones when it comes to AI. A rich suite of on-device AI features could be a game-changer and something only Apple can offer right now, given that hundreds of millions of iPhones will get the iOS 18 upgrade later this year.

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.