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Mossberg: Apple is still a world of its own

Mossberg: Apple is still a world of its own


Unpacking a packed WWDC

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Welcome to Mossberg, a weekly commentary and reviews column on The Verge and Recode by veteran tech journalist Walt Mossberg, now an Executive Editor at The Verge and Editor at Large of Recode.

As usual, there were scores of feature changes and announcements to Apple’s four software platforms — iOS, watchOS, tvOS, and the newly renamed macOS — at this year’s Worldwide Developer’s Conference. Just listing them all here would tax the patience of all but the most Apple-obsessed readers.

But there were two big themes, and a few significant moves consistent with them, that I believe stood out in the cascade of slides and demos the company showed at WWDC. They show how stubbornly Apple clings to both its principles and its profit centers.

Apple says it can both compete in AI and protect privacy

As the entire tech industry seems to be pivoting toward artificial intelligence, a number of writers (including me) have wondered aloud if the company can hold its own in teaching its software using big data, because it has vowed never to compromise users’ privacy.

At WWDC, Apple announced a way out of this seeming dilemma: a method called "Differential Privacy," which sounds like a made-up marketing term, but in fact has been documented and discussed by data scientists for decades.

In oversimplified terms, Apple plans to do as much machine learning as possible locally on the device. But, when it has to combine a lot of user data to, say, come up with slang terms to include in keyboard word suggestions, it will protect users’ individual data using differential privacy.

Apple is using "differential privacy," instead of aggregated anonymous data. What the heck does that mean?

This works by randomizing local data from each device by injecting it with meaningless "noise," or nonsense data, so it can’t be traced back to the device’s user. Then, this information is mingled on Apple servers with very large amounts of similarly randomized data from many, many other devices. To further protect individuals, Apple is also imposing a "privacy budget" that will prevent too much data — even when randomized — from getting to the server from any one user.

Even though the data is no longer precise due to the randomization, Apple says it still displays a "slight bias" toward trends that would be valuable for the software to learn, such as new slang words.

You may wonder why Apple didn’t simply use aggregated anonymous data, without jumping through these hoops. But, in fact, anonymous data can, and has, been cracked to reveal certain individual information.

It isn’t clear whether this combination of local machine learning and differential privacy will be enough for Apple to keep up in AI with Google, Facebook, and Amazon; part of these businesses is to collect usable information about their users — something Apple vows not to do. For one thing, Apple is starting slowly, using differential privacy at first to do only a few things, like improve autocorrect and search suggestions.

But the use of differential privacy appears to give the company an avenue to learn from large data sets, like its competitors, and still keep the super-hard line on privacy that makes it the hero of privacy advocates, the scourge of the FBI — and different from its competitors. Personally, I hope it works, not because it will help Apple (whose stock I do not own and from whom I get no money or gifts), but because it could help set benchmarks for privacy in tech.

Despite the push to services, Apple is still about hardware

With its key hardware sales either dropping or flat, Apple has been talking more and more about making money from services, especially subscription services, like Apple Music and the new subscription-based App Store. But there were plenty of hints at WWDC that the company, which rose to glory on the back of brilliant gadgets, is still wedded to a hardware-first strategy. That’s true even though the late Steve Jobs sometimes called it a software company.

The best example of this was that it again declined to extend its much-loved and much-used iMessage messaging system to Android, even though Google still seems vulnerable in this area. Apple did announce a clutch of new features for iMessage, like giant emojis, and handwritten texts. And it’s turning the service into a true platform that can host third-party apps like cash transfer services, stickers, photo editing, and restaurant reservation apps. But all of this seemed more about keeping people on Apple hardware than about building the biggest possible services.

Smarter software, for Apple, is part of a bigger push toward hardware

When I asked a senior Apple executive why iMessage wasn’t being expanded to other platforms, he gave two answers. First, he said, Apple considers its own user base of 1 billion active devices to provide a large enough data set for any possible AI learning the company is working on. And, second, having a superior messaging platform that only worked on Apple devices would help sales of those devices — the company’s classic (and successful) rationale for years.

Another example: while Siri, Apple’s famous voice-controlled intelligent assistant, is coming to the Mac, it will do different things there than it does on the iPhone. It already does different things on the Apple Watch, Apple TV, and in CarPlay. It is seen as a tool to enhance each particular device’s usage, not as a broad standalone service in itself. Even though some third-party apps will now be able to make use of it, it’s still something that is proprietary to Apple hardware, unlike, say, iTunes.

Sure, Apple wants to improve its ecosystem, which is why it continues to introduce new cross-device features, like copy and paste between a phone and a laptop — an announcement which drew lusty applause from the WWDC thousands. And you’ll be able to unlock your computer with your Watch. But these features, like so many others, work only if your various devices come from Apple.

This is different from Google or Facebook or Microsoft, whose messaging and other key apps — including their voice-controlled AI assistants — work on competing devices.

Apple is all-in on Apple hardware and still wants you to be all-in, too.

Apple Watch gets a rescue

This update (and the following two) aren’t quite as big as the first two, but it’s notable nonetheless. Arguably Apple’s least successful core hardware product in decades, the Apple Watch could have been nursed along, like a terminal patient.

Instead, Apple announced a massively improved new operating system for it that amounts to nothing less than a complete reboot for the device. You can read a full analysis of it here. The redesign speeds up app launching dramatically, even on current Watch hardware; eliminates tedious extra steps; and revamps almost the entire user experience. This is even more proof that Apple’s software is all about selling hardware.

Apple TV plays nice with big cable

Classic cable TV may have hit its peak, but it’s still a huge force and the streaming apps of many cable networks still require you to authenticate that you’re a paying cable customer every time you want to use a new such TV app. It’s an aggravating process that usually involves repeatedly hauling out a PC or Mac, and typing in usernames and passwords and codes you have no other reason to remember.

But, at WWDC, Apple took a step toward making Apple TV way more convenient with a single sign-on. This works by storing your sign-on information the first time with the cable provider or a company working for it, then sending anonymous tokens proving you’re a legit cable customer for every cable service you want to use after that. Again, even a seemingly small feature like this points to smart software as a driver of hardware sales.

Like I said...

Some people (including me) have complained that Apple’s core iOS and Mac apps, like Calendar and Mail, have deteriorated over time, and aren’t up to the high standards Apple sets for itself. Others have noted that, because of this, even though they use Apple hardware, they mainly use apps from Google.

Apple continues to seek its own path — for better or worse

At WWDC, Apple seemed to act on these views by quietly making it possible in the forthcoming new iOS 10 to remove or hide core Apple apps from your home screen if you like. The apps can be re-downloaded from the App Store. There are some catches. Not every core app can be dumped (the camera app, for example, can’t be banished, nor can the Messages app). And the company warns that removing some apps can wipe out data or foul up interactions with other apps.

Based on these software features and other announcements at WWDC this week, it’s clear to me that, for better or worse, Apple continues to seek its own path, as it has for decades. Like many other tech companies, it has its eye on smarter software through artificial intelligence, is setting new standards for what interactions will look like down the road, and is looking at ways to disrupt legacy media. But at Apple’s core it is still a company intent on driving its users toward simple software housed in proprietary hardware.

Correction: An earlier version of this column, relying on incorrect information conveyed in a briefing by Apple, erroneously stated that you won't be able to launch an app on a Mac using Siri merely by speaking its name in a command. Apple now says it was mistaken in that briefing and that this capability does work for first-party apps in the developer preview of the new Mac OS, and will be present for third-party apps as well upon general release in the fall.