Apple haters have always made the case that the company’s massive success is as much the product of marketing and salesmanship as it is any kind of technical innovation.
Maybe they’re right. Whatever else Apple cofounder Steve Jobs was, he was the consummate salesman. Maybe the original iPhone could have sold itself back in 2007, but Jobs’ legendary introductory event definitely helped.
But the world has changed. As smartphone innovation seems to have plateaued, the tech giants of the world, notably Google, Microsoft, and Facebook, have doubled down on machine learning and artificial intelligence — the trendy technology that’s making for smarter, more personalized apps and devices.
It’s a big, necessary step for the industry. Thanks to smartphones, tablets, smart TVs, home voice assistants like the Amazon Echo, and all our other kinds of gadgetry, we’re generating more data than ever before. The promise of artificial intelligence is a way to sift through the noise and always find exactly what we need, when we need it, on whichever device we’re using.
This means that Tim Cook’s Apple is facing a unique and unprecedented marketing challenge as it heads into Wednesday’s much-anticipated iPhone 7 launch event, where the company is expected to announce a new phone that’s only a minor improvement to the existing iPhone 6S.
With the hardware unexciting at best, that means that the onus will be on Apple to prove that the iPhone is differentiated from Google’s ever-improving Android elsewhere. Namely, it must prove the upcoming iOS 10 operating system has game with the new machine learning trend and it will bring intelligence to the whole iPhone.
How do you sell customers on something they don’t even know they’re using? Perhaps more importantly, how do you do it when the world is convinced that Apple is far behind the rest of the market? With Google nipping at Apple’s heels with each new Android release, these questions are only growing in urgency.
For Apple, the peril is twofold.
First, Wall Street is afraid that we’ve reached peak iPhone sales, and it’s all downhill from here. Second, customers and analysts alike are concerned that after years of same-same iPhone releases and the failure of new products like the Apple Watch and iPad Pro to light the market ablaze, Apple’s ability to innovate has peaked, too.
That’s why Apple’s PR machine spent much of August in overdrive, with top company execs including Tim Cook, Eddy Cue, and Phil Schiller giving interviews to Fast Company, The Washington Post, and Medium’s Backchannel.
In each interview, the content may have varied, but the message was always the same: If you think Apple’s glory days are behind it, think again.
The coded message is: Apple is not behind in new technologies like machine learning.
Apple CEO Tim CookREUTERS/Stephen Lam
Instead, Apple execs explained to Steven Levy at Backchannel that there is indeed an “Apple brain” on every iPhone and iPad that learns from user behavior. Apple sees it as part of that overall, signature Apple-just-works experience, rather than a total revolution.
“It’s a technique that will ultimately be a very Apple way of doing things as it evolves inside Apple and in the ways we make products.” Apple Senior VP Phil Schiller told Steven Levy at Backchannel.
Again, to decode that message for Apple’s investors and customers: We’re ahead of the curve on machine learning, but even if we weren’t, it would be okay, because we’re still Apple, and we still build the best stuff.
The Siri solution
In a way, Apple is right on track.
Investors and your average consumers don’t care so much about the technology that goes on behind the scenes, so much as they like new, shiny experiences. It’s as true for Apple as it is for Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Amazon, or anybody else, really.
But that just underscores the struggle of selling the stuff that machine learning makes possible.
Many of the coolest things it enables, from a technical standpoint — better app recommendations, facial recognition in photos, speech recognition, fraud prevention and security — are nifty and useful, but also the kind of things you tend to only ever notice when it doesn’t work.
Which is why you’ve heard so much from Apple about the Siri voice assistant and the new smarts that she’s getting in iOS 10. It’s something Apple can’t hammer on hard enough: This is the proof that we’re not behind in machine learning. This is the thing you can use every day to make your life better.
It remains to be seen if the souped-up Siri will be enough to reverse user behavior, given that surveys have found that 70% of iPhone users use her only sometimes or rarely.
Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter if she wins the world over or not. Siri, with her new smarts, becomes what’s essentially a mascot for the so-called Apple Brain, more so than she already is.
She’s the most tangible example of what machine learning can do, even if she’s not necessarily the best or most useful.
The exact same factors are going into Microsoft’s Cortana, Amazon’s Alexa, and the forthcoming Google Assistant, too.
So don’t be surprised if Apple starts talking up Siri as better than all other smart assistants. And don’t be surprised if Microsoft, Google, and Amazon all fire back. Because really, what they’re trying to prove is who’s the most intelligent, artificial or otherwise.