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The M4 iPad Pro's true potential will be realized at WWDC, and AI will have a lot to do with it

Apple's challenge will be aligning breakthrough hardware, like the AI-powered M4 chip, with cutting-edge software.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer
Both iPad Pro models with iPad Air
Jason Hiner/ZDNET

On May 7, the tech world watched closely as Apple unveiled its 2024 iPad Air and iPad Pro models. This wasn't just another routine product rollout, but a clear declaration of Apple's future direction. 

The event's highlight was the seventh-generation iPad Pro, equipped with what Apple has proclaimed as the most sophisticated neural processing engine it has ever developed, capable of 37 trillion operations per second, over 60 times faster than the company's first neural engine in the A11 Bionic, which debuted in September 2017.

Also: Apple nears deal with OpenAI to power upcoming iPhone features with ChatGPT, says Bloomberg

This innovation is not merely iterative -- it marks a peak in Apple's pursuit of hardware excellence. These developments arrive at a critical juncture. Amid a backdrop of slowing sales, these new models challenge the status quo, raising an urgent question: Do the current software and applications leverage the full potential of this formidable hardware?

For instance, Apple's recent financial disclosures for Q2 reveal a nuanced picture: while the company's overall revenue from iPads fell by 17% to $5.6 billion in the latest quarter, iPhone revenue declined nearly 10% to $45.96 billion compared to last year. These figures indicate a broader trend of plateauing sales, with consumers reluctant to upgrade amid minor hardware improvements.

Also: I've used every iPad since the original. Here's my buying advice for the new 2024 models

This inquiry is more than academic; it strikes at the core of Apple's strategy in personal computing. The tech giant is not simply pushing the envelope on technical specs -- it is attempting to redefine what a personal device can achieve.

Yet, the true test of these innovations lies not in their specifications but in their application. The market's tepid response to previous models suggests that upgrading processors and enhancing displays no longer suffice. Consumers seek transformative changes -- upgrades that make a tangible difference in how they use their devices, not just incremental improvements.

Hardware maturity no longer sells devices

Apple's new iPad Pro showcases undeniably impressive features. It boasts a 16-core Neural Engine for advanced AI tasks, ProMotion technology for adaptive refresh rates enhancing viewing and battery efficiency, a Tandem OLED Ultra Retina XDR display providing unmatched clarity and color, and up to 2TB of storage with 16GB of RAM capable of handling intensive multitasking.

Consumer interest in upgrading their devices appears to be declining, even with the constant advancements in technology. iPhones, in particular, are known for their longevity, thanks to their long-term support. Typically, iPhone users upgrade their devices every three to four years, but some people keep their iPhones for five years or more (and simply replace the battery). Similarly, high-end tablets like the iPad Pro are known for their durability, with an expected lifespan of around six years.

iPad Air 4 and iPad Mini 6 side by side.

The last-generation iPad Air (left) and the iPad Mini (right).

Prakhar Khanna/ZDNET

This shift in consumer behavior is driven by multiple factors. Technological enhancements in user experience are becoming more incremental rather than transformative. While the switch from non-Retina to Retina displays marked a significant milestone in visual technology, subsequent upgrades have not had a comparable impact on the user experience. Additionally, Apple's software compatibility across multiple generations means that older iPads and iPhones remain relevant longer, supporting the latest iOS updates and new software features without requiring hardware upgrades.

Also: Inside iPad Pro's new 'outrageously powerful' M4 chip, designed for AI workloads

This durability is a testament to Apple's commitment to sustainable design and support, but it also presents a challenge: motivating consumers to upgrade when the benefits are less discernible.

To overcome this, Apple must redefine its device value proposition and demonstrate that new hardware advancements are crucial for the next generation of digital experiences. This could involve unlocking new AI capabilities, transforming everyday interactions through augmented reality, or pushing the boundaries of what's possible on mobile devices with applications previously reserved for high-end desktops. Apple can reignite consumer interest and drive new upgrades by aligning cutting-edge hardware with compelling, functional software.

The software challenge: catching up to hardware

Tim Cook's recent emphasis on AI integration signals a potential shift. During Apple's Q2 2024 earnings call, Cook highlighted that the company is "uniquely well-positioned for AI," citing the seamless integration of hardware, software, and services. This boastfulness hinges on whether upcoming software updates can unlock the capabilities of Apple's hardware.

Also: Apple's new AI model could understand your home screen and supercharge Siri

Imagine an iPadOS where AI doesn't just improve photo editing, but transforms every interaction, making the device an indispensable tool for professional and personal use. This is where generative AI could play a significant role. From enhancing productivity tools to enabling new forms of interactive entertainment and creativity, the possibilities are as vast as the technology is complex.

Moreover, with the integration of AI features anticipated in iOS 18 and iPadOS 18, Apple seems poised to redefine the user experience. These features must be more than just incremental updates, however -- they must be transformative. Apple's promise of AI capabilities must manifest in tangible ways that change how we interact with our devices.

Generative AI: Apple's new frontier

Apple's entry into the field of generative AI is a strategic move to regain its position as a leader in tech innovation. The powerful Neural Engines integrated into Apple devices have laid the groundwork for this shift, which has been significantly enhanced in each new iteration of Apple's processors. Unfortunately, the transformative applications of this technology have been slow to materialize.

Apple's unique position regarding device integration could give it a significant advantage. Unlike many competitors, Apple has complete control over its ecosystem, from hardware to software to services. This allows for seamless integration of new technologies, ensuring that AI enhancements can be deeply embedded into the user interface and experience. 

Also: Apple claims its on-device AI system ReaLM 'substantially outperforms' GPT-4

For example, generative AI could enhance Siri's responsiveness and utility, transforming it from a simple voice assistant into a more robust personal AI capable of performing complex tasks such as drafting emails, generating meeting minutes from notes, or even suggesting optimizations for daily schedules.

iPhone with Siri

Siri could receive its biggest AI makeover at WWDC in June.

Maria Diaz/ZDNET

In addition to software enhancements, Apple's strong stance on privacy could become a substantial competitive advantage in an AI-driven future. Privacy concerns are paramount as AI technologies often require large datasets for training. Apple's commitment to user privacy and its development of technologies like differential privacy and on-device processing ensures that it can offer generative AI capabilities without compromising user trust.

The potential applications of on-device AI are vast:

  • Real-time voice translation could break language barriers more seamlessly than ever, supporting more natural and effective communication in real-time, directly on the device, without cloud processing.

  • Advanced augmented reality (AR) could evolve, using AI to analyze and interact with the real world in ways currently confined to science fiction. While this would primarily be the domain of Apple's Vision headsets – currently in their infancy as products, these enhancements could also be used in the company's smartphones and tablets.

  • AI-driven health diagnostics could monitor, diagnose, and predict health issues based on data collected through various sensors integrated into Apple devices (such as the Apple Watch), providing users with early warnings and health advice.

These developments would not just be incremental improvements but could redefine the functionality of mobile devices. By pushing the boundaries of what on-device generative AI can achieve, Apple is poised to enhance user engagement and open up new opportunities in personalized technology and AI-driven services. This strategic integration of advanced AI could propel Apple to the forefront of the technology innovation curve, making its devices indispensable tools for the next generation of users.

The road ahead: WWDC 2024 and beyond

The real test of Apple's innovation will be at its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) next month. Here, Apple is expected to reveal how AI will transform the capabilities of its devices across all platforms. This isn't just about adding new features -- it's about redefining what an Apple device can do.

OpenELM, Apple's advanced and open-source generative AI model, will likely be central to this transformation. 

OpenELM stands out not just for its technical prowess but also for its adaptability to mobile device constraints. Unlike larger language models that demand substantial computational resources, Apple designed OpenELM to focus on efficiency and compactness, uniquely suited for on-device applications.

Also: Apple confirms WWDC 2024 for June 10 - will AI steal the show?

OpenELM's streamlined architecture is a strategic fit for Apple's hardware. The model is available in several sizes, with parameter counts ranging from 270 million to 3 billion. This scalability allows OpenELM to operate effectively across a range of Apple devices, from the high-end iPad and iPhone to potentially even the Apple Watch, ensuring flexibility in deployment.

Despite being smaller than some cloud-based AI models, OpenELM offers a significant improvement in accuracy of 2.36% over earlier open-source models like OLMo. Moreover, OpenELM requires less data to reach its training threshold, resulting in an efficient (and also more secure) model. This is particularly important for running complex AI applications directly on consumer devices without impacting performance or the user experience.

OpenELM's small size implies that it may require the assistance of cloud-based services for more complex AI tasks. This hybrid "edge" computing model would involve OpenELM performing real-time, on-device processing while communicating with more capable cloud-based systems for more demanding data analysis tasks.

Such a setup necessitates Apple to invest more in cloud infrastructure, which it could accomplish by collaborating with other companies or improving its cloud capabilities to ensure smooth integration and data privacy. This dual approach aligns with Apple's long-standing emphasis on user privacy and data security. By processing sensitive data locally on the device and only interacting with the cloud when necessary, Apple can maintain control over data exposure and comply with stringent privacy regulations.

At WWDC, Apple must articulate how it plans to balance these technological advancements with user-centric design. Demonstrating OpenELM's potential to power features such as real-time multilingual translation, advanced content creation, and personalized recommendations while ensuring data privacy will be critical to convincing users of the value these AI capabilities add.

A call for innovation

Apple is at a critical juncture as it looks towards the future. The new M4-powered iPad Pro has impressive hardware that could revolutionize the computing industry. Without the right software, however, even the most advanced hardware risks being underutilized, making it just another iteration rather than a groundbreaking advancement.

Apple's internal teams and third-party developers must create innovative software that transforms complex capabilities into accessible, user-friendly applications that keep pace with hardware developments. This will help harness the raw power, productivity, creativity, and overall experience of the device.

Also: Apple honors 50 students as it expands coding beyond engineers heading into WWDC 2024

As Apple moves forward, its standing in the competitive personal computing market will depend significantly on its ability to integrate its hardware innovations with equally transformative software solutions. This integration will set Apple apart in a market saturated with high-spec devices and compel consumers to invest in new technology.

Apple has the opportunity to lead and redefine the next wave of personal computing in this pivotal moment. By ensuring that upcoming software updates are as revolutionary as the hardware they are meant to complement, Apple can fulfill the promise of its latest technological innovations. The goal is for these devices to become integral to our daily lives, not just in practical tasks, but also in defining the interactions and creativity of tomorrow's tech landscape.

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