The similarity of differences.

Google held its annual I/O conference recently, and unveiled some extremely interesting developments for the year to come. Focused ever more heavily on data processing and machine learning, its AI initiatives are being inserted into many of their products, and creating some new ones in the process.

One of the most notable new additions is Google’s Assistant, which replaces the Google Now functionality. Available throughout Android and new products like Google Home, Assistant will use context to present you with relevant information across many apps and services, allowing users to have a more fluid conversation with their devices, using the natural language patterns they’d ordinarily use talking to people as opposed to specific syntax queries.

Quite honestly, it’s very impressive stuff. I watched the I/O keynote in its entirety this week when I found some time, and I was blown away by some of the things Google is doing, right now, today.

I know a lot of people who enjoy it and use it daily, but for me, Siri has been inconsistent at best, and infuriating at worst. I can attempt the same, simple operations on different days and get wildly different results. Features have been added over the past few years, and on paper, it looks terrific. In reality, it is a crapshoot as to whether or not the small task I need to perform will actually get done in any possible way that would be faster than me using my phone manually. Using it on the Apple Watch is an abject nightmare. Your experience with it might have been nothing but unicorns prancing through fields of wishes and dreams, but it’s a broken system as far as I’m concerned.

Consistency is a huge part of good user experience. If, as a user, I have doubt, or reservations of any kind that the thing I need to do isn’t going to happen the way I expect or want it to, that creates friction. Friction eventually erodes trust, and without trust, I cease to be able to do the things I want in the way I want them done. I’ll find another way.

Siri has long struggled to mature under Apple’s development since the technology was acquired several years ago. I’m sure there are many, many good people working on it, and it pains me to feel the way I do and say these things, but it is simply not something I enjoy using–or use at all for that matter, anymore. There’s been quite a bit of talk lately about Apple’s ability to deliver compellingly (and consistently) in this new, shifting, data-driven landscape. Now famously having taken a stance in favor of localizing personal data to the device and protecting it in every way possible (a stance I am quite fond of), lots of questions as to whether or not the company is even prepared to meet this challenge–one that Google has been tackling for many years now–have arisen.

So back to Google.

They’re pushing forward with machine learning, using massive amounts of collected data–data that Apple has said it won’t take and doesn’t want–to create entirely new user experiences. The more it works, the smarter it gets. In the aggregate, all this data and use strengthens the product and allows users to do more things. It’s not an app, it’s an entire layer within the OS, working around what you’re doing with your device, affording you additional skills and options.

Earlier this week, prior to watching the keynote, I was having a conversation with some friends in Slack. Using my high-level glances at what Google was doing, and without really thinking too deeply into it, I said the following:

AI/bots may or may not be the future of computing. But data analysis and the kind of power Google has with those capabilities most definitely is.

That’s where Apple can’t catch up. This isn’t about phones. This is about what software is becoming and where the things we do with software go.

And I talked at length about why I thought this was true. I wasn’t spouting apocalyptic proclamations about Apple; they could set fire to piles of money today, every day for months, and still be in better shape than almost any other company on Earth. But I did express some real concern for the platform I enjoy and prefer not being able to keep up, and how the tradeoffs Apple is making to keep users safe (good) could potentially preclude it from delivering more compelling and timely experiences that people will come to expect from their devices (not so good).

Then I watched the keynote.

What became apparent to me, seeing everything myself and hearing the Google presenters talk about the technology, was that Google and Apple aren’t even competing in the same space anymore. Both companies are engaged in selling mobile devices, but they’re coming at personal technology from such different perspectives, they’re almost not even comparable. A few years ago, it seemed like the companies were at odds on the same field. But they’re not even playing the same sport.

If we’re going to distill it down to a focused, philosophical difference, I think it might look like this.

Apple’s world centers on hardware. It designs and builds amazing and transformative devices. Software is paired with hardware, and the integration points are tight, able to take advantage of hardware optimizations and tuning in crazy ways. Apple’s general perspective today on data is that they don’t want to know certain things, and want to obfuscate others. It’s a very individual-centered and -minded approach.

Google is all about that data. It eschewed hardware for its mobile OS initially, insisting that other companies provide it, following the Microsoft model of the recent past. It’s edged toward unifying software and hardware in a way similar to what Apple does, but doesn’t seem to be interested in pursuing that to its logical end. Hardware is a vehicle for software and data, passing in and out.

Apple and Google, in the eyes of the general public and many tech bloggers, have been at war for many years, and in vague terms, both companies sell fancy mobile phones. But the implications of those businesses are so far beyond the face value of what we see. And what I’ve realized is that they aren’t zero-sum or mutually exclusive. What I’ve come to understand is that the more the two companies seem to have been battling, the more the individual directions of each company become unassailably concrete.

Let’s use healthcare as an example, since that’s been the focus of segments in both companies’ recent presentations.

Apple: ResearchKit and CareKit. Centered around individuals, reporting personal data. Assembling tons of it, and allowing for better personal follow through on long-term treatment, and more individualized reporting for research purposes. Gathering of this data is done through traditional channels, but by allowing users to have agency in these processes, Apple affords people the ability to contribute to a large data set, but safely remain an identifiable component variable.

Google: machine learning to aggregate data against the treatment of extremely difficult ailments (diabetic retinopathy was the example presented in the keynote). Very few doctors can detect it accurately, and it’s very hard to do right/well. And this small number of doctors can’t be everywhere at once. But put enough data into a machine and it can pattern match the very intricate details–perhaps better than people, and everywhere at once (since people can only be in one place at a time). Throw incomprehensible amounts of information at an enormous amount of computing power and basically brute-force a treatment protocol that functions better than humans ever could.

Two fundamentally different approaches, two similar goals.

It’s a very interesting and important time in personal technology. Data moves through our lives like air. We want to protect it (some of us, anyway), but we want the value that sharing it can provide us. We want the future we were promised in our childhoods, but the changes we find occurring around us can be discomforting. This kind of change is everywhere, and it continues to move like perpetual motion, unstoppable. It’s beautiful and frightening. But it is inevitable.

I’m delighted that Apple wants to protect my information and is loudly standing up to the degradation of that idea in public and within the legal system. They may even be able to pull off the things I’m hoping for, without the compromises I’m looking to avoid. I’m also really excited to see what Google can actually do to advance the entire industry and provide new ways of solving serious problems. I think there are a lot of ways that these two approaches can exist together, in complementary layers, that can give us more of the future we’d hoped for. I’ve been becoming increasingly jaded about technology in the past few years, but I feel like I’ve been shown possibilities this week that may set me back in the other direction. Of course, there’s still time for things to go horribly awry.

The world will create a narrative of opposition because our nature is to set forces against one another. I no longer see this as a competition. And along with things like VR (which I have become obsessed with, in terms of non-gaming applications), for the first time in a while, I have real hope for things beyond my whatever my next phone might be.

That feels really good.

Author: Seth Clifford

I'm here for the open bar.