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Hey Siri! At Apple WWDC 2016, Tim Cook needs to make big data, AI pivot

Apple has boxed itself into a big data and artificial intelligence corner and fallen behind the likes of Amazon and Google. It's time for a new pact between Apple and its customers to make an AI comeback.

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Credit: ZDNet

Apple needs to change its attitude and approach to customer data, back away from the big data corner it has painted itself into, and use its upcoming World Wide Developer Conference (WWDC) to lay out some sort of artificial intelligence vision.

Amazon has Alexa and its Echo. Google has Home, Assistant and a bevy of other services. Microsoft has Cortana.

Meanwhile, Apple has its long-in-the-tooth Siri that reportedly will be opened up to third party developers.

Over the last two years, Apple has dug its heels in on privacy, vilified ad models to some degree and knocked Silicon Valley rivals (read Facebook and Google) for using customers as the products and collecting too much information.

In many ways, Apple in the Tim Cook era has been about privacy concerns and keeping customer data local. Here are a few notable Cook quotes over the last two years.

Cook on Charlie Rose in September 2014:

"Our business is not based on having information about you. You're not our product. I think everyone has to ask, how do companies make their money? Follow the money. And if they're making money mainly by collecting gobs of personal data, I think you have a right to be worried...We take a very different view of this than a lot of other companies have. Our view is, when we design a new service, we try not to collect data. We're not in that business. I'm offended by lots of it. And so, I think people have a right to privacy."

And here's Cook during a June 2015 privacy event by EPIC (Electronic Privacy Information Center), a group that champions data rights and even algorithm transparency.

"I'm speaking to you from Silicon Valley, where some of the most prominent and successful companies have built their businesses by lulling their customers into complacency about their personal information. They're gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetize it. We think that's wrong. And it's not the kind of company that Apple wants to be."

Meanwhile, there's Cook's open letter on Apple's privacy site. "Our business model is very straightforward: We sell great products. We don't build a profile based on your email content or web browsing habits to sell to advertisers," said Cook. "We don't "monetize" the information you store on your iPhone or in iCloud. And we don't read your email or your messages to get information to market to you. Our software and services are designed to make our devices better. Plain and simple."

As a customer, I commend Apple's approach. As an Apple customer, I also realize that Apple may need to find some balance with its data practices if it's going to compete in a market where artificial intelligence and big data enabled assistants are everywhere. I also realize that the privacy-speak may be a way to spin a reality where Apple doesn't have the AI knowhow for the future.

Here's the big question: How does Apple compete if Google's vision of AI and data-enabled services plays out?

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This concern has percolated up ever since Google I/O last month. Programmer Marco Arment noted that Apple could face a BlackBerry-ish fate if it misses the AI curve. Stratechery's Ben Thompson noted that Google's AI efforts may not turn into real products, but if they do Apple could have issues. The Wall Street Journal's Joanna Stern hopes that Apple gets its AI act together so it can simply make the iPhone smarter and not just a vessel for Google and Amazon services.

What should Apple do? Cook needs to walk the line between the company's mantra on privacy and data and showing off some real AI toys for developers. Siri does need a brain transplant. Apple doesn't have to be perfect, but needs to show it can hang with the Alexas, Facebook bots and Google Assistants of the world. Maybe all Apple has to do is realize that its iMessage app can be broadened as a secondary home screen.

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Apple also has to thread the data needle with a new customer pact. This chore is ridiculously simple. First, Apple doesn't need to know everything about a customer to deliver contextual services. That reality means Apple can get on the big data and AI bandwagon while still jabbing Google.

The other edge for Apple is that customers care about privacy, but do trust certain companies with their data. Enter another Meeker slide.

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Let's get real. Apple has more trust with its customer base than any other company on the planet. If any company can forge a mutually beneficial data pact with customers it's Apple.

Now the challenge for Cook and Apple is clear. Apple simply doesn't have the data or focus to rally on big data and AI. After all, Google, Amazon and Facebook know everything about you from different angles and none of those companies are going to stand still. Apple also doesn't own much of the data stack, which was also highlighted by Meeker.

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Where does Apple go now with AI and big data? Who knows? I am certain of one thing though: Apple needs to get moving sooner rather than later. WWDC is a good place to start.

ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. As a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US.

Previously on the Monday Morning Opener: