Apple enters the AI era on its own terms

Apple enters the AI era on its own terms

Despite the mystique that has wrapped itself around Apple since Steve Jobs brought it back from the brink, this isn’t a company that likes to be first to lucrative technologies like the tech world’s latest darling, generative AI.

The mouse, the graphical user interface, the powerful laptop, the touchscreen tablet, the touchscreen phone, the augmented reality headset: lest we forget, Apple invented none of these things. What Apple has refused to do, so riskily that it nearly died but also so rewardingly that it became a trillion-dollar company, is chase after flash-in-the-pan popularity.

Rather, the company has spent five decades working obsessively on perfecting new technologies that others have developed. The goal isn’t to delight Silicon Valley or Wall Street, at least not in the short term. The goal is to make products friendly, comforting, secure, and not at all scary to the average non-techie user — or at least, more friendly than they will find anywhere else.

And that’s when you sit back and watch the profits / stock price boosts roll in.


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And so it was with Apple Intelligence — the name the company unveiled for its AI product at its WWDC keynote Monday. The name wasn’t just corporate egotism or a slapdash rebrand. It, and Apple Intelligence’s placement at the end of the keynote, was a signal that Apple intends to hold AI products at a distance on its users behalf.

Apple Intelligence will use as much contextual data as possible from within the safe walled garden of your Apple products to answer your questions. (This also means that the more Apple products you buy, the smarter your AI). If you need to know something more broad, Apple Intelligence will query ChatGPT for you, with neither Apple nor OpenAI receiving any data on the user asking the question.

(And no, despite what a clueless Elon Musk seems to think, this does not involve ChatGPT being baked into the OS itself; quite the opposite.)

This isn’t what Wall Street wants to hear right now. Indeed, Apple stock ended the day ticking downwards, from the keynote onwards (whereas the tech-heavy NASDAQ rose slightly).

Apple doesn’t care. While his rival CEOs trip over themselves to use the words AI as much as possible, Apple’s Tim Cook — as we predicted he would — approached the topic with mild disdain and a focus on security.

This focus was so intense that journalists were invited to a second post-keynote event, starring CEO Tim Cook and Apple SVP/daddy Craig Federighi. (Cook bowed out early.)

Cook seemed to bristle at the notion that the company is slow to implement its AI strategy. “We’ve been using artificial intelligence and machine learning for years,” he said in his prerecorded Apple Intelligence introduction — literally his first mention in a keynote of AI. He added that to further the goal of “taking the Apple product experience to new heights … it has to be built with privacy from the ground up.”

“AI for the rest of us,” is the slogan Federighi used to wrap up his summary of Apple Intelligence features. Translation: generative AI products from the other guys is too complicated, too plain wrong. Non-Apple Intelligence doesn’t care about you, your data, your security, your privacy. There’s no filter on it; it can spew out poisonous nonsense (literally poisonous, in the case of glue pizza). This is safe, easy and effective AI for the masses.

Sam Altman, a supplicant at Apple’s altar

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman at Apple HQ, reacting to Apple veteran Eddy Cue.
Credit: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Another sign of Apple’s disdain for the way AI has been handled so far: the fact that Sam Altman, OpenAI’s CEO, was in attendance but did not appear on stage or in the pre-recorded video.

A little speech from him, or even just a Cook-Altman handshake, would likely have improved Apple’s stock performance. Especially given how much Wall Street loves AI companies in general, and OpenAI in particular.

Likewise, Apple Intelligence is a pretty big deal for Altman. Its use of ChatGPT, even at this remove, is something of a boost for a brand that has begun to flag, especially in the wake of the Scarlett Johansson scandal.

Altman isn’t exactly shy when it comes to media attention; you’ve got to figure he wanted on that stage at least as badly as the Ubisoft CEO who got his moment of glory in the keynote.

But Apple kept the OpenAI CEO at one remove. However that shook out, the result was was subtle but brilliant semiotics: Altman beat a path to Apple’s door, but he sat there mute with the other VIPs as Tim Cook’s company effectively compartmentalized his exciting, scary, often wrong product.

Apple Intelligence indeed.