What Apple’s Acquisitions in 2016 Tell Us about 2017 and Beyond

on January 4, 2017

There is a lot of speculation about the “iPhone 8” and what Apple should be focusing on in 2017 in order to stay ahead of the game or, for some, barely keep up with competition. Despite some safe bets on the new iPhone features that can be extrapolated from supply-chain clues, guessing, even correctly, what Apple will do is almost as unlikely as winning the lottery. I thought, however, that looking at the 2016 acquisitions would give us more than a clue as to where Apple will focus in the future and I share my wish list of what I would like to see come out of Cupertino.

What Apple Acquired in 2016 (that we know of)

Emotient is a startup that uses artificial-intelligence technology to decipher people’s emotions by analyzing their facial expressions. The technology can be used for a number of things including detecting pain, reading reactions to content or situations we are exposed to – think advertising and retail. Emotient had been granted a patent for a method of collecting and labeling as many as 100,000 facial images a day that can be used to teach computers to better recognize facial expressions.

LearnSprout is a San Francisco-based startup focusing on tools that help teachers monitor students’ attendance, grades, and other school activities through easier access to school information systems. One of the purposes of collecting such information and making it available to teachers was to help identify at-risk students.

Flyby Media is a company that worked with Google on Project Tango. Flyby Media developed technology that allows mobile phones to see and scan, through the camera, the world around them. The company’s website also said they were developing the next generation of consumer mobile-social applications that connect the physical and the digital worlds.

LegbaCore is a firmware security company that specializes in “digital voodoo” or security at the deepest and darkest levels of computer systems. Apple was first exposed to them as they were battling Thunderstrike 2, the first super-worm to successfully attack Macs.

Carpool Karaoke is a popular show Apple licensed 16 episodes of and is to be produced (but not hosted) by James Corden as well as Ben Winston, the “Late Late Show’ executive producer. Tim Cook and Corden kicked off Apple’s September event with a special edition of Carpool Karaoke.

Turi is a machine learning and artificial intelligence startup focused on tools that help enterprises make better sense of data. Turi also enables developers to build apps with machine learning and artificial intelligence capabilities that automatically scale and tune.

Gliimpse is a Silicon Valley-based company that built a personal health data platform that enables any American to collect, personalize, and share a picture of their health data. The focus was particularly around cancer and diabetes patients.

Tuplejump is an Indian-based machine learning company specializing in software that processes and analyzes big sets of data quickly.

Indoor.io is a Finnish company focusing on indoor location and mapping.

Acquisitions Show Clear Areas of Focus but How It Will Materialize is Still Unclear

If you look at the list above, aside from the clear outlier of Carpool Karaoke, the focus for Apple seems centered around artificial intelligence, augmented reality, enterprise and education.

Artificial intelligence is probably the best example of how different the expectations vs. what Apple delivers might be. For many, artificial intelligence simply boils down to how smart Siri is. However, intelligence in devices is expressed in many different ways. Learning which color emoji is your preference, learning your most likely route at a given time of the day, understanding a reference to a time and a place in an email and setting up an appointment for you are all examples of how “intelligence” can be used to make our experiences better.

Machine learning and fast data processing are key to feeding the brain of any artificial intelligence. Analyzing millions of data points to discover patterns that can help predictability is very important in lowering response times and increase accuracy in our exchanges with an assistant like Siri. Being able to detect users emotions might play a role in that interaction. For the assistant to know if we are getting frustrated or anxious might help with our interaction in the same way it would between two humans.

Augmented reality is an area in which Tim Cook has expressed interest and excitement. Aside from gaming which, of course, is a big part of what iPhones are used for, there are commercial experiences that could benefit from an augmented reality, mixed reality, merged reality or whatever else you want to call this blend of real and digital worlds.

Enterprise is becoming more and more important for Apple and security plays a big role in selling devices to enterprise. iPhones and iPads continue to penetrate organizations, becoming more of a target for hackers. Apple needs to stay ahead of the game. While consumers might not always recognize how important security is, Apple has been very passionate about security for quite some time. As we use our devices, not just to store pictures and contacts info but payment information, health information, smart home connections, we want our devices, as well as our data, to not to be accessible to people with bad intentions.

In education, the battle to displace Chromebooks in K-12 will intensify in 2017, with Microsoft eyeing that segment as a growth opportunity for Windows. For Apple not to have iPads forced to compete on price alone but in adding value to their offering beyond devices is important. Looking at applications and tools to educate as well as manage students is certainly a way to do that.

My Wish List for 2017

Considering the areas I have discussed above, there are a few things I would like to see Apple focusing on in 2017.

A More Conversational Siri – I have mentioned before how my relationship with Siri has been improving over time. This is good and bad at the same time. Good because I appreciate it. Bad because I want more. As my dependence on Siri grows, first in my car and then everywhere through my AirPods, I want Siri to rely less on my iPhone screen and become more conversational. Apple understands that less time looking at my screen does not mean I will think any less of my iPhone but I realize that, for conversational AI, the progress will be slow.

More Tools for Education – Swift Playgrounds was a great example of how Apple could do more to future proof our kids with the kind of skills they will need when they grow up. AI is here to stay and, instead of worrying about the threat of job losses, we should be investing in preparing the next generation with the set of skills required to get a job. While this is a much bigger issue than any single company could solve, I think Apple is in a good place to get kids engaged at an early age, not just with coding and problem-solving skills, but also with fostering creativity, imagination, and innovation.

Better Collaboration Tools – Collaboration is broader than just working with someone else. While I would like to see Apple focus on better collaboration tools for work, it is at home I more urgently need help. If you have kids, you know running a home is as complex as running a company. School and after-school activities, and work all blend together to create a scheduling nightmare only resolved with great collaboration skills.

More than any other company, Apple owns households and I would like to see more apps and tools to help households come together; not just for scheduling but also for monitoring and sharing. Without wanting Apple to give me whatever the digital equivalent of my daughter’s journal key is, I want to make sure my daughter is safe when she is online. Of course, teaching her how to do so is the first thing but there are more steps Apple could take to provide increased safety without hindering the experience. I am hoping machine learning will help with creating a more proactive approach to online safety as whitelisting websites, which is currently what most solutions boil down to, does not make for a rich experience. Sharing not just content but access to our smart homes across devices and family members could also be improved. Helping make our home life easier will pay dividends, especially at a time when the fight to own our home is intensifying among digital assistants. While having an assistant that connects with many smart home devices is valuable, having one that does not let me forget to pick up my kid from karate is priceless.

The Devil Is in The Detail

As you can see, my list is not about iPhone features and sexy new technologies. It is about practical experiences that improve my everyday life, something Apple has done for a long time. Something, however, that is hard to see when you first buy a product and something that is hard to market at point of sale. The challenge for Apple will be to continue to stay focus on delivering better experiences, rather than getting distracted by proving they can innovate by delivering sexy gadgets.