Or maybe we just don’t know yet.
In the last few months and weeks, but especially after the Google I/O developer conference held last Wednesday, the tech community on Twitter has gone crazy (as it often does). In particular, I was surprised to read a lot of praise directed at Google and their announcements. However, what was surprising was that this praise seemed to originate more as an implied critic of Apple as a company and it permeated a general sense of doom for the Cupertino company. This sentiment has accompanied Apple for a long time, especially within Wall Street, but it now reached a new extreme level probably because we are approaching the beginning of a new era in which we are not sure anymore whether having the best smartphone (i.e. the iPhone) is enough to be the best in the field. Even though these doubts are in part justified, I think fears have been amplified to unreasonable levels: Apple is not failing anytime soon even if some of their services are not as great as those made by Google, the same way that Google is not failing as a company despite Android and their hardware lacking compared to Apple’s counterparts. And for the same reasons we are not replacing Apple as the main company from which we buy most of our favourite devices anytime soon.
The above is essentially what I think about the surrounding commentary around Apple’s (at least presumed) recent shortcomings. However, I had some fun trying to go a bit more in detail regarding these points, as you can read in the next few paragraphs, by starting to take a look at Google’s recent announcements and then proceeding with some additional examples. It will all probably sound apologetic, but some points need to be rationalised a bit better.
On Wednesday Google presented some new things:
- Allo, a messaging app that is powered by the cloud to give smart reply suggestions and ‘in-line’ search
- Duo, an equivalent of FaceTime that shows the caller before the call has been actually accepted
- Assistant & Home, a smarter version of Siri with an associated physical presence that is coming at some point this year
- Android N, with biggest features being app split screen, Instant Apps (also for some previous versions of Android), and Daydream (a VR standard experience built in the OS)
- Android Wear 2.0, with main features being a keyboard (yes, really) and more phone-independent basic functionalities
Now imagine if Apple in a few weeks at their WWDC all they announce is:
- A messaging app that is interestingly smart (at the cost of having essentially each message, sent or received, fed into Google Search/servers), but wouldn’t be the default one and wouldn’t replace iMessage (Allo & Duo apparently will co-exist with Hangouts, not clear how and for how long), wouldn’t respect accessibility norms (caps lock is already fine, no need to change the text size from message to message), and would clearly tell you that if you want to have a private conversation you need to use the Incognito mode (weird wording there, Google itself makes it sound as bad as it really is)
- A FaceTime with the feature of being able to watch the caller being bored while waiting for you to answer (this is one those little things that suggest that Google actually doesn’t get people)
- A smarter Siri (but not by too much), without 3rd party APIs, integrated in an always-on Apple TV without apps that has integrated speakers (and that always listens to you—as far as I understand they never said they won’t push sound to the cloud until “OK Google” is detected locally, unlike the way “Hey Siri” works).
- iOS 10 with almost no new features except split screen on iPhone, Instant Apps (which is potentially interesting, but to me details are sketchy so far, including those regarding security), a standardised VR experience (which is nothing new compared to Oculus and won’t change things in this current version—they are probably trying to not let happen to VR what happened to Android in the past), and in particular no mention of iPads (tablets) at all (everybody seems very concerned about whether you can do real work on iPads, though—imagine if this actually happened: people would demand Tim Cook’s head)
- The “biggest update yet” for watchOS, which is mostly a *freaking* keyboard for the Apple Watch
At this point the tech community, who seemingly already thinks that Apple is destined to fail in the next few years, would go nuts.
All the deep learning and machine learning stuff is very fascinating and, in one way or the other, definitely the future (the privacy concerns and how to get over that would need a whole new post), but we still haven’t seen anything close to HAL—and a slightly smarter Siri (some will say a lot smarter, but maybe not that much), especially when APIs may be coming already at WWDC, as of today seems to me to be a bit too much for the spread of general consensus suggesting that Apple is about to shut down.
Apple is notoriously “bad at services”. And it is true that their online/cloud offerings are not as polished as their hardware and their software (many criticise this latter point as well, but I’m sure they couldn’t really point to anything being better in the majority of cases); it’s also true that they had some big mess ups with lost data and bad sync, but not so bad for the ‘normal users’ (who account for the vast majority) to actually think that there may be a problem (as far as I know you’d never hear ‘normal people’ say “oh, I’ll sync my notes with Dropbox because one time some random person said they lost their data with iCloud”).
Instead—we hear on Twitter all the time—Google is great at services. First of all, this shouldn’t come as a surprise since Google was born as a services company and if they weren’t good at it, nobody would even know about them. Their Search has always been the best, gmail is good (despite intrusive—events and similar are also detected locally on iOS and OS X with no issues), their news app Currents was a success (not really) unlike Apple News that I hear is doing poorly (not really), their media store is referred to as if it was the standard (not really, that is iTunes—even though nowadays streaming is king), incredibly good Music streaming service (not really, except for YouTube which made artists earn less than vinyls did last year), Maps is the best of the kind (despite being far from number one used on iOS, sometimes things—especially when default—can indeed be good enough), Photos (very clever search, but overall not objectively better, or worse, than iCloud Photos), …
Sure, Connect is just Ping 2.0, but what is Google+?
Everything is much less black and white than people assume.
For example, Apple Music goes under scrutiny (rightly so) and its problems apparently indicate that Apple has lost it forever, but then shouldn’t Google Music (which hasn’t essentially made any impact on the industry) suggest the same thing about Google? Also, people have a point that services will be more and more important in the future, but why aren’t they at all concerned about Google incapability of developing hardware and software at Apple’s standards? Maybe both company can do fine without being the best in all categories at all times—all they need is to be great at some things and simply ‘good enough’ in the others.
The Bottom Line:
Maybe there will actually be no place left for Apple in the future. Maybe they will never figure out Machine Learning (due to stringent privacy self-imposed rules), and maybe they will phase out soon. But nothing suggests to me that other companies are doing much better. We are all very impressed by recent advancements in tech research. Think about all the tweets about the latest video from a few months ago by Boston Dynamics and how Google was showing their future-proof capabilities while Apple has nothing of sorts (as far as we know)—well, Boston Dynamics is now on sale because Google couldn’t figure out a feasible application for that kind of products. Also, we seem to pass on companies failed experiments (that are eventually killed) because these companies fail a lot (think of Amazon), while Apple tries to fail in secret; this way we assume Apple is not even trying and their innovation capabilities are lost, until they come up with “the next big thing”. An then we repeat all the above again.
Some projects made by Google are cool but can’t be distributed to consumers yet; it’s like saying Apple is miles behind IBM because Siri is not as smart as Watson—it’s true, but it couldn’t be otherwise and it doesn’t really matter.
Ultimately, all this is chit-chat. Apple was miles behind because of Alexa. Now everybody talks about Assistant. Then maybe at WWDC with possible APIs Apple will lead again in voice and we will forget about all of this—until next time, or until the next Apple’s weakness becomes the hot topic on Twitter.
We can argue that Apple shouldn’t care about privacy to get better at this game. I think that some things need to change. However, definitely the data harvesting shouldn’t be the default, but rather it could be given to people the option to opt-in in order to get smarter services. But never for advertisement, not because ads are bad per se (even assuming no additional hidden tracking), but because I’d prefer being the customer rather than the product.