We're coming up on the end of the busiest season in tech — the month-and-a-half stretch where the biggest companies in the market reveal their grand visions for the next 12 months at their annual mega-conference events.
Facebook kicked it off in late April with its F8 conference, followed in early May by Microsoft Build, and then the just-completed Google I/O conference. This particularly Silicon Valley kind of marathon will conclude early next month, when Apple hosts its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC).
And, to be honest, this stretch has been kind of a snooze so far. Facebook, Google, and Microsoft all used their time in the spotlight to reiterate their commitments to artificial intelligence and augmented reality. It's super interesting in a philosophical sense, but it'll be a while before these big ideas congeal into finished products.
But if you take a step back to look at the bigger picture, something important is happening: In aggregate, Facebook, Microsoft, and Google are giving Apple an ever-higher bar that it'll have to clear if it wants to continue its winning streak into the next decade. And even the newest, shiniest iPhone may not be able to be able to help Apple if it can't clear that bar.
The phantom menace
At Facebook's F8 conference, Mark Zuckerberg made the provocative declaration that augmented reality, the technology for projecting digital images over the real world, could render TVs and every other gadget with a screen obsolete. Why carry a phone when your games, videos, and conversations are projected right into your eyes?
That idea alone should give Apple, which derives the vast majority of its revenue from the iPhone, cause for concern. While Apple is said to be working on augmented reality features for the next iPhone, Facebook is envisioning an end to the phone itself, possibly as soon as the next decade.
Microsoft and Google both gave lip service to virtual and augmented reality tech at their respective events. But their events had broader themes that signal an equally important but far more subtle threat to the future of Apple.
All about the data
At its event, Microsoft showed off the Microsoft Graph, a system for tracking the relationships between your documents and files across all your devices. Later this year, you'll be able to start working on a Word document on your iPhone, switch to a Windows 10 PC and pick up where you left off, and then have the Cortana voice assistant send it to your boss.
Google, at its own event, highlighted Google Lens, a new "computer vision" system coming to Google Photos and the Google Assistant. Using Lens, you'll be able to get more information on a band by simply taking a picture of the marquee outside the venue where it will play or automatically connect your phone to a WiFi network by just taking a picture of the nearby router.
The common thread here is each of these companies is collecting lots of data on its users and is attempting to make sense of it. Facebook knows all about your social life. Microsoft knows all about your professional life. Google has insane insight into your life and hobbies. All of them are using that data to offer intensely personalized experiences that help users make sense of the increasingly complex digital world.
Google, for example, has the self-given mission to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." CEO Sundar Pichai now says that the only way to accomplish that is to give every user their own "personal Google." As part of that vision, each Google user would see information that's tailored to her and delivered just when they're most likely to want or need it.
By focusing on data rather than devices, Microsoft, Google and Facebook lessen the risk that they'll become overly reliant on any one product or class of gadgets. Pichai's "personal Google," exemplified today by the Google Assistant intelligent assistant app, already works on the iPhone, Android devices and the Google Home smart speaker. You'll soon be able to use it to interact with home appliances. If Zuck is right about smartphones vanishing, the Assistant is a vital hedge for Google, which today relies heavily on the near-ubiquity of Android.
The Apple factor
The impending arrival of this artificial intelligence-filled, data-driven future could pose some very tough challenges for Apple.
First and foremost, Siri, Apple's own intelligent assistant, is still frustrating to use. Alexa, which is Amazon's Siri counterpart, has won accolades for its excellent speech recognition, and for how it allows users to easily control their smart-home devices via voice commands. Siri, by contrast can be inconsistent and understands you poorly. Meanwhile, HomeKit, Apple's technology for allowing its devices to control smart-home products, has far less support from home automation gadget makers than Apple's rivals.
It's not that Apple doesn't have access to any data. Siri is probably the most-used voice assistant out there, which gives the company a view into both users' voice interactions with their devices and the web and app searches they conduct via voice. And lots of data flows through the Mail, Maps and other Apple apps that come pre-installed on iPhones, iPads and Macs.
What Apple lacks
What Apple is lacking is a coherent strategy for tapping into all that information. And because of its public commitment to privacy, the company has been cautious about the ways it collects and uses customers' data.
Consequently, Apple hasn't really shown off a super-compelling way it's using artificial intelligence and data. Apple has certainly integrated some intelligence into iOS, with Siri suggesting apps you might want to use, Apple Maps warning you when to leave to make it to your next meeting, and Photos tagging faces in your pictures. Still, as any Google Photos user on an iPhone would tell you, Apple’s default photo app is nowhere near as intelligent as what Google’s cooked up, and that extends to the rest of the operating system’s features, too.
Apple has staffed up with artificial intelligence experts. But we've heard through the grapevine that they're more focused on a self-driving car project than they are on improving Siri or making sense of the data collected from iPhone or Mac users.
Apple is probably more aware of this than anybody, and we have to imagine that the company is working behind the scenes to up its artificial intelligence game. The company is, after all, famous for preferring to be the best rather than the first.
And despite its problems, it would be foolish to predict Apple's demise. This wouldn't be the first time the company has trailed behind rivals. It didn't make the first MP3 player, the first smartphone or the first tablet, yet it eventually found huge success in all three markets.
Still, with Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Facebook presenting such compelling examples of futuristic, data-driven, intelligent systems, Apple faces a bigger challenge than ever before. So when it's Apple's turn on the big stage, it'll have to show off more than just slick new hardware — it'll have to show a real vision for the future.