Apple's WWDC marks 'the start of the AI wars'

artificial intelligence
Artificial intelligence has become a primary focus for wireless developers.

Artificial intelligence didn’t take center stage at Apple’s WWDC, as some had predicted it would. Nonetheless, the high-profile developer conference marked Apple’s headlong pursuit of one of the most important battlegrounds in wireless.

As Jan Dawson of Jackdaw Research observed, this year’s WWDC was the iPhone vendor’s “most hardware-centric” conference in years even without the introduction of a new iPhone. (Apple is widely expected to introduce a redesigned version of its iconic handset this fall.) Apple trotted out upgrades to its Mac and iPad lines, and as anticipated, it announced the HomePod speaker.

The company also showcased some impressive software, including support for virtual reality and an SDK enabling developers to leverage the technology.

More nuanced, though, were some key announcements regarding Apple’s pursuit of artificial intelligence. Among other news, software chief Craig Federighi touted how AI is being used to improve Siri and announced new APIs to help developers leverage AI in their applications.

Apple was an early leader in consumer-focused AI with Siri, of course, but has lost ground as several other tech giants have moved aggressively into that market.

“Facebook, Google and Microsoft have all laid out clear visions in 2017 for the role of machine learning and artificial intelligence,” according to Geoff Blaber, vice president of research of the Americas for CCS Insight and FierceWireless contributor. “Apple responded by consistently highlighting the role of machine learning in its own products, how it enhances user privacy and by launching developer tools. This is the start of the AI wars.”

Indeed, some analysts have pegged AI as the next vital software platform in mobile, replacing operating systems now that Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS have cornered that market. And a recent study from CSG International found that U.S. millennials are very interested in using artificial intelligence on their phones to help them with daily tasks.

With growth in the U.S. smartphone market slowing to a crawl, developers of mobile apps and operating systems are increasingly looking to AI as a way to differentiate their wares. And Apple’s important—if understated—news at WWDC further escalates a fight that has ratcheted up quickly over the last few years.

"Apple has embarked on a complete overhaul of Siri as it responds to considerable competition and heightening user expectations,” Blaber said via email. “Weaving Siri into more apps in iOS is a necessary move to drive usage, increase trust and familiarity. Only time will tell if the new Siri can compete with Google's knowledge graph or Amazon's natural voice processing but the installed base of iOS and Apple's scope for integration is a considerable advantage."