Is the era of Apple coming to an end? Influential Apple developer Marco Arment thinks so, and a surprising number of the tech industry's deep thinkers agree that trends are pointing in that direction. In a blog post published over the weekend, Arment, the creator of Instapaper and the second employee of Tumblr, predicted dark days ahead for Apple as mobile computing becomes less about cool apps and more about artificially intelligent interfaces that converse with users in a humanlike way and anticipate their needs.
"Today, Amazon, Facebook, and Google are placing large bets on advanced AI, ubiquitous assistants, and voice interfaces, hoping that these will become the next thing that our devices are for," Arment wrote. "Apple can do rudimentary versions of all of those, but their competitors--again, especially Google--are far ahead of them, and the gap is only widening."
If Apple fails to close that gap, Arment said, it could end up like Research In Motion, which dominated the smartphone market with its Blackberry until a new entrant--Apple itself--came along and redefined that market with innovations like the touchscreen interface and a bountiful app store. By the time RIM (since renamed Blackberry) realized it needed to alter its strategy, it was already too late. "What the iPhone represented we missed," CEO Joe Chen told the Washington Post recently. "The market changed, and we didn't change with the market."
If that scenario unfolds at Apple, future business historians may well date the beginning of the end to this year's first quarter, when sales of the iPhone declined year-over-year for the first time since the device was released in 2007.
But it didn't take that wake-up call for Apple to perceive the threat represented by its competitors advances in AI and ambient computing (as smart, sensor-enabled devices like Amazon's Echo are sometimes labeled). For the last few years, Apple has been on a hiring binge, trying to snap up all the AI talent it can lay its hands on. By one estimate, it has tripled or quadrupled the number of AI engineers in its workforce.
Once the world's biggest and richest company starts throwing resources against a problem, it's only a matter of time before that problem gets solved, right? Indeed, RIM had a real chance to head off the challenge posed by the iPhone but botched it by mismanaging the launch of its would-be iPhone killer, the Blackberry Storm, according to "Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of Blackberry." By contrast, you can't say Apple was a latecomer to AI-powered voice assistants: Countless smartphone users had never encountered such a thing until September 2013, when Apple released the iPhone 4S, the first to offer Siri.
In a sense, that's exactly the problem, though. Apple hasn't fallen behind Google, Amazon, and Facebook because of a late start or a lack of resources. Rather, those companies have a built-in advantage because of the way they handle users' data--by vacuuming it up into the cloud, where they can aggregate and analyze vast amounts of it. Apple, meanwhile, has positioned itself as opposed to that kind of thing on the grounds of both user privacy and user experience.
Telling customers your email application or music player won't bombard them with creepy ads that make them feel like someone just riffled through their desk drawers is the kind of thing that generally goes over pretty well. Telling them your virtual assistant doesn't know which airline you prefer or when your next dentist appointment is--that's a tougher sell. Then again, abandoning a principled position because it interferes with your product-development prerogatives is not such a great look either.
In other words, RIM simply got out-innovated by Apple. It bet that consumers cared about physical keyboard and didn't care about apps, and it was wrong on both counts. That happens. Blackberry faced a crisis but not a philosophical dilemma. Apple may be staring down both.