As part of writing a review, I have been using Apple’s 2022 version of the 13-inch MacBook Air. I am not the first one to say it — many others have said before — it is a great device. It is a great testimonial of Apple’s hardware excellence and knowledge crammed into this thin sliver of engineering marvel. The new M2 chip, the longer battery life, improved webcam, keyboard, and speakers — everything is of exceptional quality. Apple does know how to build good premium hardware at scale.
Sadly, you can’t say the same when it comes to its software & services that rely on machine learning and augmented intelligence. The obvious deficiencies, whether on the Mac, the iPhone, or the iPad, are quite annoying. Take the Mac as an example. By now, it should be easier for the “notification” system to understand that showing notifications of events that have already happened is mere noise and a nuisance. And yet, you have to manually delete them. I mean, it should be obvious to any computer system and any application that date and time have passed.
Don’t get me started about Siri, which feels like a kindergartner compared to highly effective Alexa, and Google’s Home. If you have an accent that is not “classic American” or “classic English,” Siri will never quite understand you. Much as I loved the HomePod, it could never play “Nitin Sawhney” when I asked Siri to play his new album.
Things on iOS are comically calamitous. We all know about “What the Duck,” and by now, we have decided to live with it. Whether it is the spontaneous capitalization of words without reason, amazingly incomprehensible autocorrect, or lack of competence to transcribe effectively makes you wonder what is the point of all those neural engines Apple’s hardware team keeps cramming into the newer generation of Apple’s chips.
Many folks weighed in with their experiences and opinions when I tweeted out my observation. Ken Kocienda, who spent most of his working life at Apple and is the inventor of the iPhone auto-correct in a tweet-reply noted: “To make good computing experiences for people, you have to understand computers and people, what people want to do with computers, and what new technology can do to make things better. This sounds obvious in theory, but it isn’t so easy in practice.”
It is obvious that Apple competitors — Google, Amazon, and Microsoft — have become much better at helping people with their computing experiences. Microsoft’s Outlook, for example, has become very effective at helping with autocorrecting spellings and grammar and learning my idiosyncratic idioms. Apple showed many improvements in the Mailapp in its next Mac OS, Ventura, but they have been a bit of a letdown. For example, the “Follow Up” functionality in Mac OS Ventura Beta version of Mail is pretty hit or miss.
Together, this might seem like a bouquet of small annoyances, but it can have larger ramifications for the company. The future of hardware is not just hardware; it is constantly morphed and shaped with software and “augmented intelligence.” I pointed this out in my piece about Apple’s Studio Display. It is about adaptable and personalized hardware. AirPods, for example, could become more powerful and personal in the near future.
But all that needs intelligent systems to “augment” what we need as humans. And nothing needs it more than Apple’s next big bet. The much-rumored mixed reality platform depends on glasses, phones, and access to network information.
This platform eschews text entry for gestures and voice commands. For this new post-touch interface to work, the hardware has to be flawless, and its software experience has to be perfect. Imagine my “commands” getting a Siri-like response? I will return the glasses to the store and demand my money back. This is the real Achilles heel of Apple.
In a strange bit of irony, the piece started with Otter. I use that service to dictate notes, ideas, and random thoughts. It takes my voice and transcribes it. By now, it is good enough to deal with my accent and my pronunciation. I drafted this piece on Google Docs, enhanced by Google’s intelligence, and then used Grammarly’s AI tool to help make sure that I got my grammar right and didn’t skip the commas. For all this, I used the new 13-inch Apple Macbook Air, which I don’t mind saying, is one helluva computer.
August 30, 2022. San Francisco.
Related Reading: The Hype — and Hope — of Artificial Intelligence/The New Yorker.