Apple isn't the next BlackBerry, it's the next Microsoft

Steve Jobs Bill GatesBusiness InsiderSteve Jobs and Bill Gates

Over the weekend, long-time iOS developer and serial entrepreneur Marco Arment made a splash when he aired his concerns that without a serious investment in artificial intelligence, Apple could go the way of BlackBerry.

“Today, Amazon, Facebook, and Google are placing large bets on advanced AI, ubiquitous assistants, and voice interfaces, hoping that these will become the next thing that our devices are for,” Arment wrote. “If they’re right — and that’s a big ‘if’ — I’m worried for Apple.”

After Arment’s piece, the general consensus from Apple’s legion of armchair quarterbacks seems to be that yeah, maybe Apple isn’t investing in artificial intelligence today to the same degree as its peers, and that it’s not playing a role in the larger AI community.

But with $200-billion-plus in cash reserves, goes the sentiment, Apple can buy its way to relevance when they need to — a luxury that RIM, the company that later renamed itself BlackBerry, didn’t have in 2007 when the iPhone launched.

It’s a nice idea on paper — Apple is the most valuable company in the world. And while Apple may have whiffed on iPhone sales this past quarter, it’s still an incredible, and incredibly profitable business. 

Just remember that you can’t always buy yourself into the next big thing. Which is to say, instead of looking at BlackBerry for historical context, try looking at Microsoft.

When the iPhone launched in 2007, Microsoft was also caught flatfooted. While Microsoft had made some early investments in smartphones with its Windows Mobile business, and had much of the technology, the company’s obsessive focus on the Windows PC kept it from pulling these mobile efforts together into a cohesive business. 

And so, in 2014, realising that it had fallen far behind, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer made what we now recognise as a tremendous mistake: He championed the purchase of Nokia’s phone business for $7.2 billion in a Hail Mary play to make Windows on smartphones a thing. 

Microsoft ballmer nokiaMicrosoftSteve Ballmer shows off Windows Mobile 8 phones.

It didn’t work. Microsoft took a $7.6 billion writedown in 2015. And on Monday, research firm Gartner issued a smartphone market report indicating that Microsoft has less than one per cent of overall share of the market. That’s bad. It was also, in hindsight, totally avoidable if Microsoft had gotten its act together, sooner.

The lesson for Apple, and Apple shareholders, is that it’s not enough to have a ton of money and just throw around cash to solve every problem. It takes real vision, strategy, and execution, and a first-mover advantage is nice, too. 

It’s important to remember, too, that while Microsoft is no longer the dominant company it once was, it hasn’t just rolled over and died during Apple’s march to the top. In fact, under new CEO Satya Nadella, Microsoft has rethought how it does business and is now going through a kind of critical renaissance across every product line (except smartphones). 

Google HomeYouTubeThe new artificial intelligence-powered Google Home assistant.

Similarly, it seems extremely unlikely that Apple is doomed. As much as we’re all talking about voice assistants and virtual reality as the next big thing, we’ll still need smartphones for a long time, and Apple has that market pretty well locked up. 

But as Arment notes, if Google et al are right about artificial intelligence, Apple will have to follow in Microsoft’s footsteps and totally change its its modus operandi to embrace the future — not just with its checkbook, but with its culture and its vision. And that may prove more difficult than anybody gives it credit for.

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