Yesterday Apple (AAPL) announced that it had hired John Giannandrea, the architect behind Google Assistant, to take its Siri digital assistant from disappointing to amazing again. (Or at least to make it a credible challenger to Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant.) Siri was a big deal when Apple first introduced the digital assistant on the iPhone 4S, but since then it has been leapfrogged by its competitors. In his new job Giannandrea will report directly to Apple CEO Tim Cook.
I think this new hire is a sign that Apple has no intention of ceding yet another market to Alphabet’s Google and Amazon. At times the company has looked it it was content to become a maker of high-end, fashion statement devices without fighting it out in the trenches of the mass market.
This hire indicates, to me, that Apple isn’t going down that road. (Wonder what this approach might mean for the iPhone? I think we’ll get more clues at the company’s developer conference June 4-8.)
And the March 27 relaunch of Apple’s education products signals a similar attitude toward that market. Devices running Google’s Chrome operating system accounted for 60% of all sales of mobile devices in the U.S. education market in 2017. Apple, which once dominated this market is now No. 3 with a market share of less than 20% that trails Google and Microsoft (MSFT). Apple’s news included a new 9.7-inch iPad with 10-hour battery life, an 8-megapixel camera, and increased processing power with an A10 chip. The cost is still steeper than the Chromebook, which starts at $179, since with an education discount the new iPad will sell for $299. But it does close the gap. (However, on the same day Google announced its first education tablet for Chrome with a built in stylus will sell for $329. Apple’s iPencil adds another $89 to the cost of a iPad even with the education discount. This battle is just beginning.)
Apple’s hire of Giannandrea came just a few hours after he announced that he would be leaving Google. He joined that company in 2010 and in 2016 his job expanded to intregrating AI and machine learning in all parts of Google’s ecosystem with Google Assistant.
Giannandrea’s first job will be homogenizing Siri across all of Apple’s devices. According to Macworld there are huge gaps between what Siri can do on each device. For example Siri won’t take notes on the Apple Watch or set timers on a Mac computer. On the new HomePod Siri is pretty much limited to doing any task beyond setting the music controls. That will require some hardware upgrades (a microphone on Apple TV, for example) and performance boosts on the Apple Watch and that will take time, but that part of bringing Siri up to the level of the competition is certainly doable.
The harder job will be building out Siri and retaining Apple’s approach to privacy. As Macworld explains the difference: “Unless you opt out, Google is free to use your interactions with Google Assistant to help make it smarter, which is large part of the reason why it’s been able to leap-frog Siri in such a short time.” Apple, on the other hand relies on something Macworld calls differential privacy. “That means your personal interactions with Siri stay on your phone and any data Apple collects is mixed with randomized “noise” that makes individual information anonymous and untraceable.” Apple explains what happens then: “If many people are submitting the same data, the noise that has been added can average out over large numbers of data points, and Apple can see meaningful information emerge.”
Apple obviously isn’t relying on one person to renew Siri. At the end of March, Thinknum reported, if you typed “Siri” into Apple’s job listing database, you got more than 200 openings.
Welcome back to the race, Apple.
Apple is a member of my long-term 50 Stocks portfolio.