Is Apple about to get BlackBerry'd?

Is Apple about to get BlackBerry'd?

In 2007, RIM was riding high: It had captured key business and government markets, profits were up 73%, and while a new competitor were soaking up some good press, the competitions' phones were all worse in significant ways that seemed impossible to overcome. A few years later, it would all come crashing down, but even in 2007 the company's fate was being sealed.

Now, some wonder if the same might be true for Apple.

The recent round of discussion was kicked off by iOS developer and commentator Marco Arment, who wrote that he was worried that, if Google's vision for the future, one in which AI bots are increasingly important, is correct, Apple is likely to be in a tough spot:

Where Apple suffers is big-data services and AI, such as search, relevance, classification, and complex natural-language queries. 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.

“Privacy” isn’t a very good excuse. It’s possible to build tons of useful services and smarts by just using public data, like the web, mapping databases, business directories, etc., without any access to or involvement from the user’s private data. Even more enhanced functionality can be done with the limited set of personal data that Siri already uses, such as location and contacts. Google and others do these sorts of non-creepy or less-creepy services far better than Apple, too — not just the creepy ones.

And Apple is showing worryingly few signs of meaningful improvement or investment in these areas. Apple’s apparent inaction shows that they’re content with their services’ quality, management, performance, advancement, and talent acquisition and retention. And they may be right — they may be fine.

But if Google’s right, there’s no quick fix. It won’t be enough to buy Siri’s creators again or partner with Yelp for another few years. If Apple needs strong AI and big-data services in the next decade to remain competitive, they need to have already been developing that talent and those assets, in-house, extensively, for years. They need to be a big-data-services company. Their big-data AI services need to be far better, smarter, and more reliable than they are.

I covered BlackBerry (then RIM) starting in 2007 until about 2012, including interview the then-chief executive and other key leaders, as well as people up and down the BlackBerry ecosystem. Right now, machine learning, as powerful as it is, doesn't yet feel the same as the tide that would rework the computing landscape.

For one, I haven't seen the end-user side clamoring for smarter chatbots or assistants: Yes, Amazon Alexa appears to be selling OK, but not anything close to the frenzy of enthusiasm of the early iPhones. And with Amazon, Google, Microsoft, AND Facebook all making massive bets on the technology, it seems less like massive disruption going on and more like technology giants taking out insurance policies against one potential form of massive disruption (notice how many of those same companies are also making huge bets on VR and augment reality).

Nowhere is this more true than at Microsoft, which was largely cut out of the mobile platform wars and now sees AI and messaging as a way to leapfrog back into the game

But I still think that there are parallels between BlackBerry and Apple worth paying attention to. I have no doubt that AI and machine learning will radically rework the way which humans and machines interact, it's just a matter of when and how.

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