Marco Arment on Apple’s Role in Big Data and AI

Another piece from app developer and podcaster Marco Arment, in which he ponders the increasing publicity of big data and AI and how Apple fits into the picture:

Today, Apple’s being led properly day-to-day and doing very well overall. But if the landscape shifts to prioritize those big-data AI services, Apple will find itself in a similar position as BlackBerry did almost a decade ago: what they’re able to do, despite being very good at it, won’t be enough anymore, and they won’t be able to catch up.

Amazon, Facebook, and Google - especially Google - have all invested heavily in big-data web services and AI for many years, prioritizing them highly, iterating and advancing them constantly, accumulating relevant data, developing effective algorithms, and attracting, developing, and retaining tons of specialized talent...

...if Google is right, that’s a big problem for Apple.

It’s easy to forget, especially having followed Apple for so long, that there are things that we simply don’t know anything about behind Apple’s closed doors. There are also givens that Arment presents here, like big data/AI developments needing public exposure to some degree, or such developments only being viable in the environments that these data companies foster, and I find that easy to believe, but don’t know whether or not they’re absolute necessities. Truth is, there’s so little that the tech blogosphere really knows or understands regarding these fields considering consumer electronics has been such a product-focused industry until now, which can understandably leave people uncertain, even those of us that follow technology intently. (The rise of clickbait culture certainly doesn’t help.)

In addition, because of Arment’s understandably paranoid yet one-sided perspective, there are other factors he has not considered. For example, Apple probably has the best platform for these new technologies to become ubiquitous and operate at a system-level, whereas Google can only ship updates to a select few devices that accept updates, and Facebook doesn’t even have a physical device and relies solely on apps. There’s also the fact that these are largely software developments, something that Apple can keep completely in-house compared to hardware. (It’s undoubtably much more difficult to keep it under wraps, but not impossible as far as I can tell. Apple’s been proven to see that as a necessary sacrifice to make for their business model to work.)

It would also be absolutely galling if Apple wasn’t doing anything in these fields already. Even today, there are areas that could operate almost flawlessly if Apple had access to big data (see previous few posts). This is an area of concern for them, but because they don’t make it seem apparent today, doesn’t mean it’s not on their radar at all. And of course, Arment forgets about the company’s culture almost immediately after citing the iPhone as a beacon of progress to BlackBerry’s stagnation. He uses Apple against itself, but the culture has not changed as dramatically as he makes it seem since then - they still look ahead to the next thing, but don’t say a word about it, which has and will probably continue to be mistaken as ignorance.

It’s easy to spin this as a narrative, and I totally understand it, I really do - it’s hard not to. And when everything’s said and done, Arment could be right - from how things look on the outside, I’d be inclined to agree with him. But it’s definitely a “time will tell” situation that should probably be left to develop further until these services eventually come out of development and into public use.


Further reading: Marco’s stated having hated r/Apple somewhere before - yes, it can be intolerable at times - but the thread on his article is on point.