Apple's upcoming iOS 18 AI features may carry a ‘preview’ label — here's why

 Ios 18.
Ios 18.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has promised the company will “break new ground in generative AI” this year, but there could be an early sign that the company is planning to take it slow when introducing this to customers.

In the latest edition of his Power On newsletter, Bloomberg’s Apple specialist Mark Gurman writes that Cupertino is mulling over marketing its upcoming AI features in iOS 18 as “a preview”.

Gurman believes this could indicate that “the technology isn’t yet fully baked” and notes the ominous historical precedent: “Siri launched as a beta test in 2011, and — given its struggles keeping up with the competition — arguably still feels like one.”

In the newsletter, Gurman explains that Apple’s approach is to introduce AI tools at WWDC 2024 that “appeal to a user’s practical side”, leaving “whiz-bang features to other companies”. This will be led by something called “Project Greymatter”, which Gurman says will integrate into core apps like Safari, Photos and Notes, as well as iOS itself with enhanced notifications.

Most of this will be done on-device, as long as your iPhone, iPad or Mac is from the last couple of years. Cloud-based AI tricks will be handled via M2 Ultra-powered machines in data centers.

There’s more in the works for this year, including voice memo transcription, AI photo touchups, an improved Siri, summarization, message suggestions and better searching in Spotlight. Gurman says we’ll also see generative AI brought to the emoji, with “software that can create custom emojis on the fly, based on what the user is texting.”

But, as Gurman notes, a lot of these features will sound old hat to those who’ve used recent Samsung or Google Android handsets. Given Apple is already largely playing catch up with established features, is a “preview” label a touch worrying?

A bad omen?

If Apple does label its AI features as a preview (and Gurman says this may or may not be just for the beta period), there are a couple of ways to look at it.

First there’s the pessimistic view: that Apple is so far behind the competition that it feels the need to reassure users that this isn’t the finished article.

By the time the iOS developer preview rolls out this month, it will be over 18 months since ChatGPT blew everyone away in November 2022 and since Google launched the Pixel 6 with its Magic Eraser tool a month earlier. Mobile AI offerings have only gotten more sophisticated in the intervening months, and it’s possible that Apple’s initial offerings may appear quite underwhelming by comparison.

Alternatively, there’s a more Apple-positive way to view it: that a cautious approach is the only responsible way to tackle the introduction of AI.

At the recent I/O developer conference, Google’s message was that AI was sophisticated enough to be front and center of its search offering. Now, the company is frantically trying to get rid of wrong, silly or downright dangerous advice its AI summaries are spitting out.

With a "preview" tag, Apple is basically saying: “this is unfinished beta software, some things may be a bit wacky, so think critically” — which feels like a more sensible way of approaching the seismic changes AI promises to deliver in the next few years.

We’ll have a better idea of which one of these analyses is correct once the developer preview is released, and we can see Apple’s AI approach for ourselves. How it’s implemented, how useful it seems and how well it performs its tasks will reveal whether Apple is justified in its caution or not.

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