State of the Art: Can Apple Think Outside the Device?

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Credit Stuart Goldenberg

More than any other company in tech, Apple prizes physical objects — expensive, perfectly designed, self-contained nuggets of aluminum and glass that you buy today, use for a couple years and replace.

Until recently, that view worked quite well. Over the past decade, through its own products and the many copycats that piled on, Apple’s device-centric aestheticism has made computers easier to use and more accessible to more people around the world — and raked in historical profits while doing so.

Yet Apple’s view increasingly feels like an outdated way of thinking about tech.

Many of its competitors have been moving beyond devices toward experiences that transcend them. These new technologies exist not on distinct pieces of hardware, but above and within them. They are things like Alexa, Amazon’s ambient assistant, which lives on the internet and is ready to help you on the Amazon Echo but also on any other device that a programmer adds it to. In an era of flat iPhone sales, Apple, too, has been talking up the importance of online services, which it sees as a crucial part of its future growth.

So the primary question Apple had to answer at its annual developer conference this week was whether it could expand its worldview. Could it break free from the limiting perspective of individual devices?

The answer: Yes, but slowly — and it’s hard to tell if Apple is thinking big enough.

What was obvious in the hurricane of new features unveiled by Timothy D. Cook, Apple’s chief executive, and his lieutenants was that they understood the importance of cloud-based services. Many of Apple’s announcements featured some role for the internet to integrate people’s experiences on disparate Apple devices, often with the help of artificial intelligence.

But a lot of these features felt small bore. Apple still seems to view online services as add-ons to its devices — not as products or platforms that rise above them. The best way to see the shortcomings of this position is through Siri, the voice assistant that is Apple’s best chance to create the kind of transcendent, cross-device experience that its competitors are now pushing.

Analysts and developers were expecting big improvements to Siri. Apple did show off a way for some apps to integrate with Siri and for Siri to perform a few new functions on Apple TV; Siri also found a new home on Macintosh computers. But the way Apple presented the changes, with each Siri advance positioned as a feature of one of Apple’s devices, left unclear what Apple’s ultimate aims were for the voice assistant.

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