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Can Tim Cook sell you a new iPhone based on Apple's new AI features? It's a huge question for the company.

Peter Kafka   

Can Tim Cook sell you a new iPhone based on Apple's new AI features? It's a huge question for the company.
  • Apple's iPhones are so good it's a problem for Apple because people don't need to buy replacements.
  • But the new AI features Apple showed off at WWDC will only work on Apple's newest phones and devices.

What if your iPhone could scan, and understand, your emails and your texts and your calendar? So you could ask it when you're supposed to pick up your mom from the airport and where you're supposed to go to lunch afterward without looking through all of that stuff yourself?

That's the scenario Apple sketched out Monday, when it tried to explain how it was integrating AI into its ecosystem.

And that sounds … pretty good to me?

But let's reframe the question: Would you pay $800 — or a lot more — for an Apple device that does that stuff?

Because that's the key question for Apple, which says that all of the new AI features it announced at its developers conference will only be available on its top-of-the-line devices. That means the series 15 iPhones it debuted last fall, as well as its newest/most powerful iPads and Macs, and whatever new devices it rolls out later this year.

If the answer is "yes," then AI will be a very big deal for Apple because it will solve a very big problem: People aren't buying iPhones like they used to.

That problem is not a secret and is on full display when Apple announces iPhone sales numbers that show slowing growth — or, like it revealed last quarter — an actual decline.

And you can also see it in third-party reports about iPhone owners hanging on to their existing phones much longer than they used to.

In one way, this is a very high-quality problem for Apple — it makes phones so good that there's no reason to buy next year's model, or the one after that, or the one after that. (I can attest to this personally: I use an iPhone 13 that I got in 2021 and have yet to find any reason to swap it out for something new.)

But it's also a very real problem for Apple since Apple is in the business of selling expensive, high-margin hardware.

As we've discussed here before, Apple has tried to cope with this problem by emphasizing the growth of its "services" businesses, which can grow independently of its device sales. But it still really, really needs you — and me — to buy a new iPhone periodically to keep the whole thing humming.

If you were a deeply cynical person, or a journalist, you might wonder if Apple really needs its latest and greatest chips and other hardware to make the AI it is showing off work. You might suggest that this is just a convenient sales pitch for a company that can no longer say "Thinner!" or "Better camera!" and get people to pony up for a new phone.

But for argument's sake, let's assume that this is at least a bit true. (We do know, for starters, that the tech that powers stuff like ChatGPT requires an enormous amount of electricity. So maybe running it on your pocket computer requires a state-of-the-art pocket computer, too.)

So now, back to the main question: Is the stuff that Apple CEO Tim Cook showed off Monday amazing enough to make you buy a new phone, or iPad, or Mac?

Because I saw some hints of some pretty cool stuff, like the mom/airport scenario Apple says it can solve. But a lot of stuff didn't seem as impressive, like the ability to custom-create emojis in your text messages. (What's up with Apple's belief in emojis as a difference-maker?)

One reason this stuff may not have blown me away is that it may literally not be that big of a deal — just like talking poop emojis weren't a big deal in 2017. Or maybe it's that the most impressive uses of AI on iPhones won't show up until developers figure out cool new ways to use AI on iPhones — which is the whole rationale for showing this stuff off at a developers' conference.

But I do have a third, vibes-based theory about why the AI that Apple showed off didn't blow me away. It's that Apple is walking a fine line here: It wants you to think that AI is amazing — but not scary.

Because the amazing/scary dichotomy has been something we've become quite used to with other AI launches in the last few years: Chatbots like ChatGPT can convincingly "talk" to you — but can you trust anything they say? Image- and video-making tech like Midjourney and Sora can conjure amazing-looking scenes from scratch — but maybe they'll replace an entire industry? Etc.

And during Apple's Monday demo, the company played on both sides of that line: It would tell you that Apple's AI could instantly make your writing better. But it also made dark, fleeting references to other people's not-so-good AI. Like AI companies that store your data on "someone's AI cloud."

And that tension is most obvious in the name of the product itself: Apple doesn't call its AI "artificial intelligence" but "Apple Intelligence" — implicitly arguing that the other AIs aren't something you need to spend time worrying about.

Actually, it was pretty explicit. "This is AI for the rest of us," Apple executive Craig Federighi spelled out at the end of his presentation.

In Apple's framing, that's AI that's helpful, but not creepy; immediately useful, but not too disruptive. And, crucially: Cool enough to justify a new, very expensive purchase.

Are you buying it?


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