Apple’s Critics Could Be Right This Time….


The seeming struggle By Apple to execute on its vision for artificial intelligence is the most pressing example

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AirPods are displayed as Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks during an Apple media event in San Francisco in September.

Almost since the birth of Apple Inc., critics have declared it was headed in the wrong direction.

In 1997, when the company was 90 days from bankruptcy and Steve Jobs returned to save it, that criticism was correct. While things aren’t remotely as bad today, Apple’s critics are correct again.

The most pressing example is Apple’s seeming struggle to execute on its vision for artificial intelligence—specifically voice-based interfaces. AI isn’t just a curiosity for the company; it is the technology most likely to disrupt Apple as thoroughly as Apple disrupted the smartphone industry.

AI-powered voice assistants can directly replace interactions with mobile devices. It isn’t that screens will go away completely, but screens unattached to objects that can listen, talk back and operate with autonomy will rapidly become obsolete.

Computers we talk to can be anywhere. To work best, they have to be everywhere—at home and in the office, in our cars, on the go. Amazon.com Inc. had a surprise hit with the voice-based assistant Alexa and its embodiment, the connected speaker Echo. Alphabet Inc. ’s Google is close behind. Partners with both companies spent several days at the CES tech show in Las Vegas last week introducing a deluge of devices powered by these competing technologies.

Apple has achieved dominance through design and execution. Shown, MacBook Pro laptops after their launch in October.

Apple has achieved dominance through design and execution. Shown, MacBook Pro laptops after their launch in October.

Apple is clearly aware. It is reported to be working on its own Alexa-like smart-home device. The history of Apple is rarely about being first—think of the iPod—but becoming dominant through superior design and execution.

But the conspicuous absence of such a device or comparable functionality makes it hard to believe Apple isn’t falling behind, despite being one of the first to the starting line when it introduced Siri more than five years ago.

Apple didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article.

Apple has a potential solution. Consider which is better: Putting a microphone in every room of your home or office, or putting a single one in your ear. Imagine Joaquin Phoenix spending the entirety of the movie “Her” trapped in his apartment, shouting instructions to the wireless speaker in which the artificial intelligence Samantha was trapped, instead of walking around sharing his life with her as she rode in his smartphone and earpiece.

Apple’s wireless earbuds, called AirPods, are really tiny computers that let you access Siri with just a tap on the side of your head. The problem, though, is Siri is so poorly implemented with the earbuds, it is easier to just use your iPhone. That could be fixed easily enough.

A larger, much more intractable issue is Siri still doesn’t measure up to rival services from Google, Microsoft Corp. and Amazon.

The easy rejoinder is since Apple has the market share and hardware to give us seamless access to AI, it is simply a matter of putting more of its resources into Siri and its always-on access points, the iPhone, AirPods and the Apple Watch.

But that ignores criticism that Apple, despite essentially limitless quantities of money, is failing to live up to its own standards of quality. Apple watchers have kept up a drumbeat of complaints: neglect of the Mac line of computers, unremarkable cloud services, missed ship dates, a creep of product bugs, and so on. Apple’s top brass had their compensation cut after the company missed its revenue and profit goals for 2016.

One explanation is Apple’s “unitary” management structure, where divisions are responsible for tasks such as marketing or engineering rather than individual products. Apple’s head of software engineering is ultimately the head engineer for every single Apple product. This means Apple is great at creating unified experiences, but if the company makes too many products, it is impossible for management to keep up. Contrast that with Amazon, where every business gets its own leadership and profit and loss statement.

Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook repeatedly has said one of his core beliefs is you can only do a few things well. Barring a new management structure, the solution to Apple’s troubles in keeping up with all the things it makes, much less AI, is the same as it was when Mr. Jobs returned in 1997: focus. Mr. Jobs famously reduced the company’s sprawling lineup of devices to just four computers.

Apple’s leaders must devote their attention to disrupting their own company. That doesn’t mean releasing bigger iPads, but exploring how Apple’s core products can be central to the always-on, voice-activated, artificially intelligent computing interfaces here now.

Like all giants at the apex of their power, it isn’t clear Apple is sufficiently paranoid about what might come next.

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