Apple rushes to keep pace with the competition

Brandon Bailey
Associated Press

San Francisco — Apple is working to make its iPhone and other gadgets smarter, responding to competitors’ recent moves by building more artificial intelligence into its Siri digital assistant, photos, maps and other online services.

The tech giant kicked off its annual software conference by announcing new software features for the Apple Watch and Apple TV, as well, while unveiling a new design for the Apple Music service. It’s also extending Apple Pay to the web, so users can pay for purchases made on their Mac computers. Most of these new features won’t arrive until this fall.

At a time when sales of its flagship iPhone are slowing, Apple seemed determined to show that it can make its gadgets indispensable, or at least as useful as its competitors’ products.

Still, the tech giant is taking a cautious approach to integrating computer intelligence into its online services. While Apple is opening its text messaging service to outside app-builders, for instance, Apple made no mention of adding the kind of intelligent programs, or “chat bots,” that competitors are all rushing to build into their messaging platforms.

Apple executives also stressed their efforts to safeguard users’ privacy even while providing recommendations and suggestions based on individual user information. The company says it’s committed to keeping most user data encrypted on individual iPhones or other devices, rather than uploading information to process on Apple’s servers.

Experts say that can make it more difficult to analyze information and provide useful services, but Apple says its software can still be helpful. Apple’s once-maligned Maps service, for example, will offer traffic information, location-based searches for things like restaurants, and let users connect with outside apps to do things like make a reservation or call a car service.

For some features, however, Apple says it’s starting to upload some user data for comparison to other consumers’ interests and habits, but it vowed that information will be “anonymized.”

“We believe you should have great features and great privacy,” said senior vice president Craig Federighi.

Apple’s wise-cracking digital assistant will play a larger role in the company’s products. On Monday, Apple announced that Siri will be coming to Mac desktop and laptop computers, where it can locate files and perform other feats. Siri will also gain new capabilities with Apple TV, where it will let you launch live TV viewing with voice command and search YouTube and the iTunes store for videos.

Perhaps more important, Apple is letting Siri work with applications made by other companies. The change will open up new ways for Siri to help iPhone owners get things done more quickly.

Such AI features are emerging as a major new tech battleground, one where Apple is racing to catch up with other virtual assistants from Google and Amazon. Amazon’s assistant, Alexa, is enjoying a surge in popularity, partly because it works well with a variety of other applications.

Outside developers are eager to work with Siri, according to Jordan Edelson, CEO of independent app-builder Appetizer Mobile. “It could really change the way that apps are built and how customers experience them,” he said.

Apple’s AI improvements aren’t restricted to Siri. An update to the iMessage app, for instance, will rely on machine learning to automatically suggest appropriate emoji to place alongside texts. It will also show graphics and thumbnails of the information contained in a web link and automatically play online videos when they’re opened by a recipient. Apple’s photo app will get the ability to analyze an individual’s photo library and group photos by people, locations or other subjects, automatically assembling them into albums and short movies.

Other changes were more aesthetic. The messaging app, for instance, will let users alter the size of the bubbles surrounding the text to help convey the feelings underlying the words. An expression of love might get a large bubble while a message of condolence might be shown in a very small one. The feature is similar to an upcoming Google messaging app called Allo.

Apple Music, which now has 15 million paying subscribers, is getting a new interface that’s intended to be simpler and that will make it easier to find music you store on your phone, and not just tunes you can stream from the internet.

Apple’s watch, the company’s first new product since CEO Tim Cook replaced co-founder Steve Jobs in 2011, got a face-lift.