We should probably prepare to be disappointed by Apple’s big AI WWDC debut

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Macworld

Welcome to our weekly Apple Breakfast column, which includes all the Apple news you missed last week in a handy bite-sized roundup. We call it Apple Breakfast because we think it goes great with a Monday morning cup of coffee or tea, but it’s cool if you want to give it a read during lunch or dinner hours too.

Absolutely Insignificant

Last week I spent an hour or so trying to explain WWDC to a civilian, by which I mean someone who isn’t obsessed with Apple to an unhealthy extent. While it can be frustrating (“What do you mean you don’t know the difference between iOS and iPadOS?!”) I find this sort of exercise useful in restoring that all-important sense of perspective which can be easily misplaced in this industry.

Above all, the conversation made me realize how odd this yearly event must seem to those outside the Cupertino bubble. Ostensibly aimed at app developers and focusing on how those devs will be affected by changes coming to Apple’s various software platforms, WWDC ought to be both niche and dryly technical–but while the events and workshops across the subsequent week are both of those things, the keynote presentation which kicks the whole thing off really isn’t. Like a children’s TV show packed with sly innuendoes for parents, the WWDC keynote is aimed over the developers’ heads at the tech media cameras behind them, and the millions of owners and prospective owners of Apple devices following the announcements around the world.

More than its misleading format, however, WWDC is truly peculiar in its scattergun product focus. In the fall we get new iPhones and Apple Watches, and everyone knows what to expect. When Apple holds a spring event we can be fairly sure iPads will be part of the equation. But WWDC is all over the place. Often there are Macs, but at various times we’ve had AirPorts, HomePods, iPads, Vision Pro, Pro Display XDR, and even a few early iPhones. WWDC is equally likely to feature no new hardware at all. It’s a mess, frankly.

Making predictions about WWDC is a mug’s game, then. But in the opinion of this mug (and quite a lot of other mugs, to be fair), WWDC 2024 will probably be known henceforth as Apple’s AI event. The company has been pretty open about the fact that iOS 18 will see a major gen AI push, and some pundits have extrapolated from this and other pointers that it will be one of the biggest iOS updates in the iPhone’s history. macOS 15 is also likely to get the AI treatment and that’s triggered a bunch of excitement, too.

Except… it probably won’t be that exciting at all. AI is important, and Apple is aware that everyone wants to hear its plans for this burgeoning area of technology, but the chances of a truly momentous announcement at WWDC are low, to say the least.

For one thing, gen AI may be a hot topic, but it’s also extremely controversial, raising serious questions about copyright infringement, reliability, and even racism. Last week it was reported that in the U.K. alone, almost eight million jobs could be lost to artificial intelligence within three to five years. A lot of people are angry about AI, or queasy about the ways it could affect society, and (with a few notable exceptions where its founding principles are at stake) Apple is notoriously reluctant to rock the boat. Tim Cook is not going to march out on stage and proclaim that macOS is about to make human artists redundant, or that Siri will rely on AI for all of its factual responses. (Not that Siri could get much stupider.)

What’s more, of the AI upgrades that Apple does have in mind to announce this year, the most interesting will probably be delayed until the fall, when the new iPhones arrive. Sources report that the company plans to make some AI features exclusive to the iPhone 16 Pro and 16 Pro Max, and it will therefore keep them secret until those models are unveiled. Leaving WWDC as a damp squib, AI-wise.

Apple’s usual policy on entering a new market is threefold: it waits, it observes the errors of other companies, and then it swoops in with a product that fixes them. But for technical reasons that probably won’t be possible here. Cupertino will have observed Google’s chastening experience with Gemini and will have resolved not to make the same mistakes, but there’s no reason to think it has miraculously come up with a model that won’t be vulnerable to the same manipulations. A better policy at this point would be to promise less and lock down more. This isn’t going to be SiriGPT, where you can do whatever you like. It will be something far more modest. Something like Siri, only slightly smarter… if we’re very lucky indeed.

The reported Baidu collaboration, of course, means Apple doesn’t need to start from scratch. Instead, it will license existing AI services, most likely that company’s ERNIE Bot, and import its capabilities into the iPhone and other products. But this sensible approach means that almost by definition, Apple isn’t going to announce anything truly new. It will just tell us how a model the world already knows about will now apply to its products. (It might not be just Baidu’s ERNIE Bot, by the way; one theory holds that this will be used only in China, with another model such as Google’s ill-fated Gemini licensed elsewhere. But the point is that Apple’s strategy seems almost certain to focus on licensing existing tech rather than building its own.)

All in all, then, it’s probably wise to prepare for disappointment, at least as far as AI announcements go, at this year’s WWDC. Of course, we tech obsessives will all still watch the thing in the vain hope of being surprised. And the rest of the world, quite reasonably, will think we’re odder than ever.

Have your say

Last week’s rant against shrinking bezels provoked some reader letters… and, perhaps surprisingly, they were supportive.

JS, in fact, added a sensible point that I didn’t address. “The other annoyance with shrinking bezels,” he wrote, “is holding the iPad and getting spurious inputs from simply holding it. A person needs some space around the touch screen that won’t be sensitive to a touch input.” Yes! This is true.

Joe P, meanwhile, offered a perspective I shamefully had not considered. “Many of us who got into computers when punch cards were standard technology have arthritis in our hands. Wider bezels allow us to more easily enjoy the latest technology.” Thank you, Joe.

Foundry

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And with that, we’re done for this week’s Apple Breakfast. If you’d like to get regular roundups, sign up for our newsletters. You can also follow us on Facebook, Threads, or Twitter for discussion of breaking Apple news stories. See you next Monday, and stay Appley.

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