Behind Apple's magical future, a vision built on borrowed ideas
As always, from its HomePod to augmented reality, Apple's best ideas build on what its competitors did first
Apple may be the biggest tech company in the world, but some of the biggest tech stories in recent years haven't involved Apple much at all.
Amazon redefined the concept of a personal assistant by freeing it from the phone, and creating a standalone speaker that you could talk to in your home. Myriad companies — none of them Apple — have been fighting over the future of virtual reality, augmented reality, and everything in between.
And now everyone is talking about machine learning, with Google and Facebook leading the charge.
Yet on Monday, at its annual developer conference, Apple announced new efforts in all three areas at the same time.
The company is bringing augmented reality to the iPhone and iPad, while virtual reality is coming to the Mac. And you can soon find Siri inside a standalone speaker for the home. At the same time, Apple is sharing machine learning tools with developers, while being more open about its own efforts, too.
- Augmented reality on the iPhone and iPad will make it easier to put new types of apps in the hands of millions — experiences that overlay digital information onto the real physical world when viewed through the phone or tablet's screen. Imagine games that sprawl over an otherwise empty table, or the chance to see how a new lamp looks in your bedroom.
- Virtual reality on the Mac will put Apple on par with some of the other big tech companies in the world — such as Microsoft, Google, and Samsung — which already make it easy to create immersive, 360-degree videos, or transport gamers to virtual worlds.
- The new HomePod is designed to sneak Siri into the home by putting it inside a product — a streaming music speaker — that people already understand.
Taken together, these are the technologies that some of the world's biggest technology companies believe will define the future of how we interact with our computers — not through mechanical interfaces, but more natural, human experiences.
And now that Apple thinks so too, it's a question of whether slick software and a massive customer base will help the company leapfrog its competitors' considerable head starts.
Because, like so many of Apple's best ideas, someone else thought of them first. It's just that Apple believes it can make them better.
The Siri speaker that wasn't
For months, rumours swirled that Apple was preparing to announce a smart, internet-connected speaker that you could control with your voice. It would work a lot like Amazon's Echo or Google Home.
When Apple announced the HomePod, however, it sounded more Sonos than Siri — a music accessory first, and a home assistant second. Siri functionality was one of the last features that Apple teased.
Unlike its competitors, HomePod's singular purpose is to deliver a really good music listening experience. But the only way you can control it is with your voice — and it just happens to know the weather and help you turn off your kitchen lights, too.
This could be a tacit admission by Apple that it's too late in the game for yet another smart speaker — at least in name. By the time the first HomePods ship in December, Google Home will have had a one-year head start, and Amazon Echo three years. So by marketing the HomePod as a music device, Apple can under-promise and over-deliver.
Creating virtual worlds
Today, if you want to experience cutting edge virtual reality, you'll probably buy a headset and a Windows PC. Or if you want to experience augmented reality, you'll check out Microsoft's HoloLens, or one of Google's latest Android phones. What you won't do is boot up your Mac or pull out your iPhone.
But Apple is trying to change that by releasing new tools to help developers create augmented reality experiences on the iPhone and iPad, and virtual reality experiences on the Mac.
To demonstrate, visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic created a simple virtual reality experience set in the Star Wars universe, running on a Mac. Meanwhile, filmmaker Peter Jackson's game studio Wingnut AR demonstrated an augmented reality experience on an iPad. Airships circled above a table, an intricately rendered town below, firing weapons as they weaved.
These experiences, while impressive, aren't unique to Apple, but the company believes it's uniquely positioned to help create them on a scale we haven't seen before. It's betting that AR-capable iPhones and iPads exist in far greater numbers than Google's limited number of AR-enabled phones. And to show developers the Mac a viable alternative to the PC, Apple has already aligned with industry giants like HTC, Valve, Unity, and Unreal, some of the biggest names in VR — albeit, a few years late.
Last August, Backchannel editor Steven Levy wrote an article titled "The iBrain is Here, and It's Already Inside Your Phone." It was one of the first times that Apple had spoken at length about how the company was using machine learning in its products — and for good reason.
2 tools for developers
Unlike Google and Facebook, which spoke frequently about their efforts and made their tools freely available for developers to use, Apple was notoriously secretive. But it was starting to open up — and it did a bit more this week.
For developers who may not be machine learning experts, Apple has built a pair of tools that leverage machine learning algorithms for face tracking and language processing.
Meanwhile, a tool called Core ML lets developers take the algorithms they've created for, say, Facebook or Google's machine learning software, and make them work on the iPhone. Naturally, Apple claims that apps built with Core ML can handle certain machine learning tasks faster than its competitors.
Again, Apple isn't the first to tout the wonders of machine learning to developers, but they say they're trying to make it easier to work with than their competitors. It's the thread that ties all of this week's announcements together — not first, but better.