Sunday, June 23, 2024

WWDC will put Microsoft’s AI push to the test

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Luke Larsen / Digital Trends

Promotional logo for WWDC 2023.

This story is part of our complete Apple WWDC coverage

Microsoft’s big Copilot+ announcement last week was certainly impressive. Combining both an embrace of AI and Arm, it went along way toward not just catching up with MacBooks — but actually surpassing them.

Contents

  • Rumored AI announcements
  • Apple’s on-device problem
  • Apple’s strategy

But Microsoft’s time in the spotlight won’t last too long. Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) is next week, and the rumored Mac announcements will either make Copilot+ look a lot less impressive — or make Apple appear out of touch.

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Rumored AI announcements

OpenAI

To say Apple’s approach to AI has been highly anticipated is putting it lightly. The rest of the competition, whether it’s Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Qualcomm, Intel, or Meta, have all spent the last year-and-a-half investing heavily in generative AI. Microsoft might be the best example, of course, as it went all-in on AI early on by partnering closely with OpenAI from the very beginning.

Apple has not. Despite having had a neural engine in its chips for years, Apple has not made any significant announcements to fight back against or champion ChatGPT — or perhaps sidestep it entirely. But we all knew that couldn’t last forever. Apple would need to respond in some way, and it’s finally time.

The announcement of the ChatGPT app for Mac was a big first step, but it’s only the beginning.

The latest report from Apple insider Mark Gurman provided a list of new AI features that are in the works for both iPhones and Macs, including photo retouching, voice memo transcription, suggested replies, improvements to Siri, and perhaps the most bewildering feature — auto-generated emojis. On the Mac-specific side, there may also be some AI enhancements built directly into Xcode, which could be a major benefit for developers.

I anticipate some improvements to first-party applications like Pages, Numbers, Keynote, and Notes to compete with all the generative AI that’s been put in Copilot Pro. But as a whole, I have a feeling Apple’s announcements may end up being more conservative than Microsoft’s all-in approach.

Microsoft

Most interesting for this comparison are the supposed “faster and more reliable searches in Spotlight.” That short description doesn’t provide much detail as to how Spotlight might be transformed, but as Apple’s search function, Spotlight could certainly use a boost of AI to improve the experience. The comparison against Microsoft’s new Recall feature is also highly interesting.

Recall is a reimagining of search in the AI era that lets you use natural language to search the entirety of your PC and your past activity on it. Microsoft’s approach involves watching and recording everything you do, which has some serious privacy and security concerns.

I have a hard time thinking Apple would dare violate user privacy in this way, especially since its current lineup of Macs don’t have the advanced AI processing of the Copilot+ NPUs, or neural processing engines.

Apple’s on-device problem

Microsoft

The big push behind Copilot+ PCs is on-device processing via the laptop’s NPU. Microsoft is requiring 40 TOPS of NPU performance for devices to qualify as one of these PCs, putting it above even the 38 TOPS of the Apple M4’s neural engine. Of course, that’s only available on the iPad Pro right now, and may not make it back to the MacBook Air until later this year or early 2025. Apple just updated those devices earlier this year with the M3, after all.

Of course, Apple has powerful CPUs and GPUs at its disposal too. But in the end, whatever AI capabilities Apple announces at WWDC will need to be supported by the available hardware — and for now, that’s just the M3. The M3’s neural engine can only do 18 TOPS, which is not much of a step up over the Intel Core Ultra’s NPUs.

Running persistent AI models in the background, such as what’s needed with Recall, requires performance that won’t tank your battery life. If the processing will remain on-device, which I assume it will be based on Apple’s fairly strong privacy policies, the Macs’ new AI features will likely need to be more modest.

But that’s not a bad things necessarily. As we’ve seen time and time again, it’s entirely possible to dive into AI a bit too fast. We’re in the middle of a massive flub with Google’s AI Overviews. And we all know Microsoft has had its fair share of missteps with adopting this technology too. Whether Recall falls into this category is yet to be seen.

So, while Apple might not be ready to fully embrace AI, that may end up being to its benefit.

Apple’s strategy

We all know Apple’s never been one to come to technology before it’s fully matured. Just look how long it took to get to the Vision Pro, for example. And in this case, Apple’s slow roll will allow it to take a more measured approach to AI, a technology that isn’t exactly known for being safe and predictable.

So, while we don’t know exactly what Apple will announce at WWDC, I think we can speculate that it won’t be anything as ambitious and controversial as what Microsoft has cooked up. I wouldn’t be surprised if we come away from WWDC thinking that the new features in Copilot+ are more risky and potentially interesting, while what you’ll able to do on a Mac with AI might feel more refined.

We’ll have to wait until June 6 to find out for sure.

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