Apple recently embedded a number of new AI-based features in its laptops, phones and watches. But, despite this, some industry experts believe that the company is ‘lagging behind’ its competitors in the ‘AI race’.
This is because Apple has taken a unique approach to AI. Rather than looking at solutions that focus on generative AI like other big tech companies such as Microsoft have, the company has instead largely committed itself to machine learning. Similarly, rather than bragging about its prowess in the space and hyping its achievements, Apple has instead stayed largely silent about its approach and its overall aims.
So, is Apple really behind and, if so, what could it do to catch up? Let’s take a look.
Apple’s alternative approach
At face value at least, Apple is making big waves in the AI space. After all, Apple has acquired more than two dozen AI companies since 2015. However, the way that the company approaches and speaks about AI is vastly different to its competitors.
For example, while Microsoft and Google are active in promoting their generative AI chatbots and large language model (LLM) platforms, Apple remains tightlipped about its activities.
After all, the company doesn’t talk publicly about AI acquisitions, which is part of the reason why companies like Emotient, Laserlike, Drive.ai, AI.Music and WaveOne aren’t household names while ChatGPT (Microsoft) and Bard (Google) are.
Similarly, rather than openly discussing its overall AI strategy, Apple instead quietly gets on with its business. This means that, instead of shouting about its plans, the company simply lets its engineers create and embed new technologies into its products and then unveils them.
So, while competitors talk about what is to come and build hype, Apple instead doesn’t talk until it releases, which is partially why Apple’s major events and announcements now come with so much anticipation.
A focus on machine learning
But, a difference in the way it communicates isn’t the only thing that differentiates Apple’s approach. After all, while the company’s rivals are focusing on building standalone generative AI models, Apple is instead targeting machine learning infrastructure.
At the moment, Apple is focusing on how it can bring machine learning techniques to its products. Such an approach has led to the company making 30 AI acquisitions over the past eight years. This move has allowed Apple to bring in leading teams of talent that can create customer-friendly AI features.
What does this mean for the company’s products?
Although Apple may downplay its AI achievements in public, there’s little doubting the company’s prowess.
After all, Apple has embedded several new AI features in its latest products. For example, the iPhone 15 features ‘personal voice’, which lets users synthesise a voice like their own. Plus, the model’s upgraded camera uses machine-learning AI to tell the difference between a person and an animal in the frame.
Similarly, the Apple Watch Series 9 and Ultra 2 incorporate AI into the double-tap feature. This makes it easier for a user to perform tasks. It also makes Siri smarter and helps the company provide more advanced health monitoring. Added to this, we recently learnt that AI will also be built into Vision Pro.
But, is Apple really lagging behind Microsoft and co?
Despite the release of these new features, some experts believe that Apple now lags far behind its big tech rivals. After all, the majority of industry experts believe that generative AI is the future, and this doesn’t seem to be something that Apple is actively pursuing.
But, just because Apple isn’t aggressively pursuing generative AI now doesn’t mean that other companies have a long-term advantage. After all, even though companies like Microsoft are currently earning huge sums of money through generative AI, Apple retains one key advantage over its competitors: the world’s most monetised installed base. This is because more than two billion users are currently running its iOS operating software on devices.
So, while Apple is definitely lagging behind in the generative AI race, the company certainly is not on the outside looking in when it comes to AI overall. It’s just currently focusing on machine learning instead.
After all, rumours continue to swirl that, as part of Apple’s machine learning push, the company will shortly launch an AI App Store. If their engineers can create this, Apple will be able to monetise AI in an historic way.
This is because an AI App Store is a growth opportunity that would leverage what’s been one of the most important aspects of the Apple story in recent years, the growth of its services business, which is now a $100 billion revenue stream on its own.
Within an AI App Store, Apple’s opportunities can range far beyond the company’s traditional offerings like Music. As a result, some experts believe that a fully functional and operational AI App Store could provide the company with an additional $5 billion to $10 billion a year in services revenue.
How much would it cost for Apple to catch up?
That said, even if Apple does dominate the machine learning space and generates revenue via the AI App Store, the company will still lag behind when it comes to generative AI. So, if the company does decide to pivot strategies and gets involved in the generative AI race, how much would this cost?
Well, experts now believe that, in a race to ‘catch up’, Apple would need to spend an eye watering $1 billion a year purely on generative AI. For what it’s worth, some in the space believe that the actual figure could be 5x this amount!
These figures may sound obscene, but the reality is that Apple has apparently already spent $10 billion on AI research and development in the past few years in order to create the foundation for developers to build AI apps (this level of spend is comparable to Microsoft’s).
For this reason, it’s important to stress that Apple isn’t ‘falling behind’ because it isn’t investing in AI or doesn’t see the value it could provide. Instead, it’s merely the case that Apple is investing its money in AI in a much different way to its rivals.
But, this isn’t to say that Apple will never pursue generative AI. It just means that the product isn’t the company’s core focus. After all, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook has mentioned generative AI to analysts before and has fueled speculation that Apple will one day launch a product to rival ChatGPT and Bard.
In a recent earnings report call with analysts and investors, Cook said:
“We view AI and machine learning as core, fundamental technologies that are integral to virtually every product that we build. And, of course, we’ve been doing research across a wide range of AI technologies, including generative AI, for years,”
“We’re going to continue investing, innovating and responsibly advancing our products with these technologies, with the goal of enriching people’s lives. We tend to announce things as they come to market, and that’s our MO, and I’d like to stick to that.”
Added to this, back in July, Bloomberg reported that Apple had begun to work on AI tools with the company’s own LLM, dubbed ‘Ajax’. The company has also allegedly created a chatbot, Apple GPT, for internal use.
Why does this matter?
This news is incredibly important as it demonstrates how much the AI landscape continues to shift. While many people think of AI as one homogeneous thing, it is becoming increasingly clear that many big tech companies are attempting to leverage AI in different ways.
On top of this, it’s also incredibly interesting to see the eye watering sums of money that companies like Apple and Microsoft are committing to AI in order to win the arms race.
So, is Apple really ‘falling behind in the AI race’? Well, in terms of generative AI, potentially. However, as we’ve seen, the company has an endless pot of money that it can use to ‘catch up’ if it feels it needs to.
But, in terms of AI overall and how its power can be leveraged? Certainly not. Yes, how the company is thinking about AI deployment does differ from its big tech rivals. But, Apple is spending just as much as other big tech companies, and if its gamble on machine learning and the AI App Store pays off, the company could surge ahead in the AI race.
For customers, users and consumers, this is excellent news. After all, if Microsoft, Apple, Meta and Amazon all harness AI differently and create a suite of products and services that meet different needs, life could soon get a lot easier.