This year's Google I/O was all about AI and it’s computing power. Google showcased its 17-year focus in organizing the world’s information via the Google Assistant—previously Google Now—in products like Google Home and Allo. Its machine-learning demos were impressive and its custom chip focused on machine learning in AI servers probably didn’t generate the wow factor it deserved.
I’m not surprised by reactions like Marco Arment's concern for Apple in the face of Google's apparent AI and computing superiority. Back in 2014, I wrote that Apple seemed to continue to focus on the relative short term, at least in what they’re bringing to the market and talking about in public. Whereas Google has self-driving cars and ventures to Mars—now all being rolled into separate businesses—Apple has been focused on incremental value like Handoff and Apple Pay.
All this background doesn’t mean that Apple is doomed to lose consumers to Google's head start in AI or data infrastructure and services. The battle for what's beyond handheld devices is more complex than that and is not just about technology.
Look Closer, Apple Gets AI
I remember telling people back in 2008 that the iPhone changed the game because it knew more about you than say a web browser did. You might have used Yelp prior to 2008. Once you had Yelp in your pocket, while on the street it could pinpoint your exact location and provide immediate, contextual results. You could then send a restaurant you picked to a friend from your address book. This sounds basic now, but it wasn’t then. Computing that was with you all the time, knew where you were, and had access to your social graph is what ushered in the era of mobile-local-social apps.
The iPhone and what was then “iPhone OS” enabled this new environment. It was Apple’s belief of the marriage of hardware and software that allowed developers to create dozens and dozens of killer apps. Apple provided easier and better access to OS-level functions while offering a rich SDK. For many years, comparable killer apps just did not exist on Android.
In 2016, however, Android has the same apps and experiences that iOS has. Apps are no longer Apple’s competitive advantage. They’re no longer the reason to choose an iPhone, whereas they were even just a few years ago.
Google has been getting better at what Apple does faster than Apple has with Google’s core competencies. Whether it’s user experience, design, or even a more platform-centric approach, Google has advanced those fairly quickly compared to Apple’s mastering of AI and data services.
In many ways, Google I/O 2016 shows Google running with Apple’s playbook starting back in 2007: more personal computing. If the iPhone could be with you everywhere, at least as defined back in 2007, Google Home and the new Google Assistant makes this infinitely more so. Why my family loves Amazon’s Alexa is that she’s always just there.
Apple hasn’t, however, completely ignored AI or data infrastructure and services. Since 2011, Siri has been a considerable focus for Apple and each year it keeps getting better. Similarly, iMessage is an immensely successful platform for Apple that is ultra-reliable.
No, Siri is not on par with what Google has or demonstrated for Google Home. As far as we know, Apple also doesn’t have a chip that helps compute AI faster. In my daily usage, Siri is better than Alexa though. And FaceTime is often as good as a Google Hangout.
Just as with the operating system itself, the playing field will be leveled when it comes to AI and infrastructure. Apple is heavily focused on Siri and what it means across mediums and platforms. Siri and iCloud represent a focus since 2011, meaning Google has about a 12-year head start in this space. We still hear today that Apple is taking more and more infrastructure in-house. Apple also knows hardware extremely well and could easily move into creating chips for whatever they need.
As I commented on Twitter, Siri and Apple’s approach to AI will soon be able to do “enough” for many users. It will get to the point where the general public won’t see them as competitive advantages or reasons to use one over the other. This may not happen in the next 2-3 years, but it will happen sooner rather than later.
Apple’s Tech Hurdles vs. Google’s Perception Problems
The right experience is what will win for AI. That’s where things get interesting for Google. The company that early on adopted the “don’t be evil” motto has not fully overcome this hurdle. This is why they had to dedicate entire sections of their I/O keynote to talking about security and privacy. Even its successful Gboard launch on iOS had to address privacy extensively.
Meanwhile, Apple is the company that from day one of the App Store—and its platforms in general—has a very locked down, security-centric approach. Apple has had its extensive app review policy in place since the start and a permissions approach to information like location, contacts, and comparable data that Android later adopted.
People are still wondering about Google’s intentions. Can a company that makes money on eyeballs and advertising be trusted with more data? How do products like Allo help the core way Google generates revenue?
Let’s surmise for a moment that I’m vastly off with how much further ahead Google is than Apple when it comes to AI. Let’s just say that Google is 50 years ahead of them for the sake of this example. If people don’t trust Google, it ultimately doesn’t matter if they have the best AI. Apple’s “significantly worse” AI in the form of Siri would be preferred and be used more.
Apple likely isn’t 50 years behind Google when it comes to AI. If you go just by the years Google has existed compared to when Apple launched Siri, it’s a 12 year head start going into 2011. Apple has made a ton of progress in the last five years. What does Google’s advancements in improving its perceptions around privacy concerns look like over that same period of time? Which is a harder hurdle to overcome, technology or trust?
So, no, Apple is not doomed on the AI and infrastructure front. Apple ushered in the current platform shift: the original mobile-local-social approach that propelled a more personal computing era. They’ve fallen behind but they’re not that far behind. Apple has its technology hurdle in its sights and Google its perception problem. They’ve both won the handheld war, at least for now. The battle for the home, the car, and anywhere a device is not easily accessible is just beginning.
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