Facebook, Microsoft, and Google are raising the bar higher than ever for Apple – Business Insider
We’re coming up on the end of the busiest season in tech — the
month-and-a-half stretch where the biggest companies in the
market reveal their grand visions for the next 12 months at their
annual mega-conference events.
Facebook kicked it off in late April with its
F8 conference, followed in early May by
Microsoft Build, and then the just-completed
Google I/O conference. This particularly Silicon Valley kind
of marathon will conclude early next month, when
Apple hosts its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC).
And, to be honest, this stretch has been kind of a snooze so far.
Facebook, Google, and Microsoft all used their time in the
spotlight to reiterate their commitments to artificial
intelligence and augmented reality. It’s super interesting
in a philosophical sense, but it’ll be a while before these big
ideas congeal into finished products.
But if you take a step back to look at the bigger picture,
something important is happening: In aggregate, Facebook,
Microsoft, and Google are giving Apple an ever-higher bar that
it’ll have to clear if it wants to continue its winning
streak into the next decade. And even the newest, shiniest iPhone
may not be able to be able to help Apple if it can’t
clear that bar.
The phantom menace
At Facebook’s F8 conference, Mark Zuckerberg made the
provocative declaration that augmented reality, the
technology for projecting digital images over the real world,
could render TVs and every other gadget with a screen
obsolete. Why carry a phone when your games, videos, and
conversations are projected right into your eyes?
That idea alone should give Apple, which derives the vast
majority of its revenue from the iPhone, cause for concern. While
Apple is said to be working on augmented reality features
for the next iPhone, Facebook is envisioning an end to the
phone itself, possibly as soon as the next decade.
Microsoft and Google both gave lip service to virtual and
augmented reality tech at their respective events. But their
events had broader themes that signal an equally important
but far more subtle threat to the
future of Apple.
All about the data
At its event, Microsoft showed off the Microsoft Graph, a system
for tracking the relationships between your documents and
files across all your devices. Later this year, you’ll be
able to start working on a Word document on your iPhone, switch
to a Windows 10 PC and pick up where you left off, and then have
the Cortana voice assistant send it to your boss.
Google, at its own event, highlighted
Google Lens, a new “computer
vision” system coming to Google Photos and the Google
Assistant. Using Lens, you’ll be able to get more information on
a band by simply taking a picture of the marquee outside the
venue where it will play or automatically connect your phone to a
WiFi network by just taking a picture of the nearby router.
The common thread here is each of these companies is collecting
lots of data on its users and is attempting to make sense of
it. Facebook knows all about your social life. Microsoft
knows all about your professional life. Google has insane insight
into your life and hobbies. All of them are using that data to
offer intensely personalized experiences that help users make
sense of the increasingly complex digital world.
Google, for example, has the self-given mission to “organize the
world’s information and make it universally accessible and
useful.” CEO Sundar Pichai now says that the only way to
accomplish that is to give every user their own “personal
Google.” As part of that vision, each Google
user would see information that’s tailored to her and
delivered just when they’re most likely to want or need it.
By focusing on data rather than devices, Microsoft, Google and
Facebook lessen the risk that they’ll become overly reliant on
any one product or class of gadgets. Pichai’s “personal
Google,” exemplified today by the Google Assistant intelligent
assistant app, already works on the iPhone, Android devices and
the Google Home smart speaker. You’ll soon be able to use it to
interact with home appliances. If Zuck is right about
smartphones vanishing, the Assistant is a vital hedge for
Google, which today relies heavily on the near-ubiquity of
The Apple factor
The impending arrival of this artificial intelligence-filled,
data-driven future could pose some very tough challenges for
First and foremost, Siri, Apple’s own intelligent assistant, is
still frustrating to use. Alexa, which is Amazon’s Siri
counterpart, has won accolades for its excellent speech
recognition, and for how it allows users to easily control their
smart-home devices via voice commands. Siri, by contrast can
be inconsistent and understands you poorly. Meanwhile,
HomeKit, Apple’s technology for allowing its devices to
control smart-home products, has far less support from home
automation gadget makers than Apple’s rivals.
It’s not that Apple doesn’t have access to any data. Siri is
probably the most-used voice assistant out there, which gives the
company a view into both users’ voice interactions with their
devices and the web and app searches they conduct via voice. And
lots of data flows through the Mail, Maps and other Apple apps
that come pre-installed on iPhones, iPads and Macs.
What Apple lacks
What Apple is lacking is a coherent strategy for tapping into all
that information. And because of its public commitment to
privacy, the company has been
cautious about the ways it collects and uses customers’ data.
Consequently, Apple hasn’t really shown off a super-compelling
way it’s using artificial intelligence and data. Apple has
certainly integrated some intelligence into iOS, with Siri
suggesting apps you might want to use, Apple Maps warning you
when to leave to make it to your next meeting, and Photos tagging
faces in your pictures. Still, as any Google Photos user on an
iPhone would tell you, Apple’s default photo app is nowhere near
as intelligent as what Google’s cooked up, and that extends to
the rest of the operating system’s features, too.
Apple has staffed up with artificial intelligence experts. But
heard through the grapevine that they’re more focused on a
self-driving car project than they are on improving
Siri or making sense of the data collected from iPhone
or Mac users.
Apple is probably more aware of this than anybody, and we have to
imagine that the company is working behind the scenes to up its
artificial intelligence game. The company is, after all, famous
for preferring to be the best rather than the first.
And despite its problems, it would be foolish to predict Apple’s
demise. This wouldn’t be the first time the company has
trailed behind rivals. It didn’t make the first MP3 player, the
first smartphone or the first tablet, yet it eventually found
huge success in all three markets.
Still, with Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Facebook presenting
such compelling examples of futuristic, data-driven, intelligent
systems, Apple faces a bigger challenge than ever before. So when
it’s Apple’s turn on the big stage, it’ll have to show off more
than just slick new hardware — it’ll have to show a real vision
for the future.