UNLIKELY UNDERDOG

Apple is facing its toughest fight since the 1980s

Apple has done pretty well for itself these last few years. It’s got cash in the bank, healthy revenue, and it still sets the bar for what a modern smartphone should look like.

But while the iPhone is singularly important, both to Apple and to the category of devices it’s inspired over the last decade, technology companies are now jockeying to usher in the next wave of personal computing.

The consensus is artificial intelligence is going to be the key differentiator, with every device—whether its a lightbulb or a laptop—capable of speaking to each other and making decisions to suit their owners. Big tech firms like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft are saying that they’re now “AI-first companies.” That’s bad news for Apple.

Artificial intelligence research and implementation is dominated by Google. Its free AI tools for developers are used far more than those from any competitor; its products all use AI in some form—from Gmail to search—and now it’s attacking the smartphone market with the well-received Pixel line of phones and Home smart speakers, both building their operations around Google’s voice assistant.

Amazon has made a huge business out of selling server space for AI applications, and has established dominance in the smart speaker market with its virtual personal assistant Alexa and Echo devices. The company’s most ambitious projects, like a physical store with no human cashiers, hinge on more and more advancements in artificial intelligence.

At Microsoft, CEO Satya Nadella has quickly reorganized the company to bring AI closer to its core Windows and Office products. The company also benefits from the ability to put its virtual personal assistant, Cortana, on to more than 600 million machines.

This is a war Apple was supposed to win. In 2011, while Google was just starting to form its now-massive AI team and Amazon executives were pitching the Echo smart speaker, Apple had acquired a startup spun out of SRI Labs called Siri. It was a one-of-a-kind virtual personal assistant that Apple quickly ported into its latest smartphone, the iPhone 4S.

But roll out of the technology was buggy, and year after year Siri saw few meaningful updates. Engineers working on the project later said the original goal was to become the “App Store for AI,” but core development issues forced that dream to the side, according to The Information (paywall). AI was not being prioritized at Apple the same way it was at other companies.

Since the late 1990s, Apple has been the dominant consumer-electronics company, if not the dominant company overall. It revitalized its personal computers with the colorful iMac in 1998 after Steve Jobs had retaken the helm. It upended the music industry with the introduction of the iPod and iTunes, and did the same for the web with the iPhone, the App Store, and its many mobile apps in 2007. Its products during this period were a perfect melding of top-notch (and expensive) hardware and software designed to get the best out of the technology. Today, the company’s products are shipping with bugs and errors at an unprecedented rate. Remember how we all couldn’t type the letter “i” for a while?

Winning at AI is not like any fight Apple has been in for years. Over the last few decades, it only produced premium products when many of its competitors were racing to the bottom of a price war. It’s less possible to do that with AI, which relies on vast amounts of data to produce useful products, which usually means something Apple is loathe to do—gathering data from customers, or working with others to use theirs.

This is a new world for Apple, which has traditionally been very controlling in the production of its hardware and kept its software closed off, even if had been built on open-source technologies. It’s starting to open itself up, slowly, even speaking at AI conferences and publishing some of its research.

Apple hasn’t really competed in market that it hasn’t essentially defined since its early PCs days, when it paid Ridley Scott to make genre-defining ads about its place in the PC market. Back then, Apple was the scrappy competitor taking on the likes of IBM. Now, it’s the largest company in the world that has multiple legitimate, deep-pocketed competitors in a critical market. It’s now playing catch-up in a race where top talent is scarce and expensive.

There are signs that its efforts are ramping up—it snagged Google’s top AI executive, John Giannandrea, earlier this week, gaining experience in building a company around AI from the ground up. We likely won’t know whether Apple is serious about revamping its AI strategy until Giannandrea starts flexing his role in the company.

It’s hard, however, to feel too bad for Apple or really consider it an underdog. After all, the company is still on top of the world.

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