Google's AI Showcase Sets Up a Big Challenge for Apple

Google keeps tossing out more AI toys. Apple hasn't added any to its products... yet.

David Lumb Mobile Reporter
David Lumb is a mobile reporter covering how on-the-go gadgets like phones, tablets and smartwatches change our lives. Over the last decade, he's reviewed phones for TechRadar as well as covered tech, gaming, and culture for Engadget, Popular Mechanics, NBC Asian America, Increment, Fast Company and others. As a true Californian, he lives for coffee, beaches and burritos.
Expertise Smartphones | Smartwatches | Tablets | Telecom industry | Mobile semiconductors | Mobile gaming
David Lumb
6 min read
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Google/Screenshot by CNET

Google I/O 2024's keynote was almost entirely filled with AI announcements detailing where and how its Gemini chatbot will be used in much of the company's product suite. The midyear show is traditionally where we see a lot of software updates and product teases, but the intensive focus on how AI will enhance Gmail, Search and other products consumers use daily is a warning shot for competitors.

That includes Apple, which is set to hold its own software-oriented WWDC keynote on June 10. The company behind the iPhone has kept its AI plans close to the vest, with CEO Tim Cook sharing vague references to what it has in store for the year during earnings calls. Aside from the surprise release of its OpenELM large language model last month, we know very little about what's coming at WWDC 2024.

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But Google's AI showcase gives Apple plenty to compete with. The tech behemoth leaned hard into how its Gemini chatbot would integrate with and enhance existing services in ways that play to its software strengths, including using AI to parse through Gmail and photos. 

Here are all the areas where Google has the most advantage that Apple will be hard pressed to keep up with. 

Read more: AI Was Google's Biggest 'Product' at I/O. Tech Keynotes Will Never Be the Same

Watch this: Everything Google Just Announced at I/O 2024

Google leads -- will Apple follow?

This Google I/O was one of transitions. Google has seemingly replaced Google Assistant with Gemini -- and in the future, with the not-yet-public Project Astra, a new AI initiative that can scan what your phone camera sees and offer tips (in one example shown during I/O, reminding someone where they left their glasses, which the phone had seen half a minute earlier). 

It's easy to see Apple supercharge Siri with AI to be more helpful, or even have the virtual assistant be more active in noticing surroundings and making suggestions. But Apple has also kept user privacy foremost in its design decisions, so it's hard to imagine the company following Google down paths for more personalization at the cost of exposing users' habits and surroundings. 

Similarly, another feature Google teased has Gemini listening to phone calls and warning users when it detects likely scam activity. For example, a caller would be warned when they are asked to transfer money. Even if that detection happens on the device as Google claims, it seems like a bridge too far for Apple to monitor iPhone owners' behavior so intrusively -- especially after the company backed down on its CSAM detection proposal years ago following blowback from privacy advocates

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Google/Screenshot by CNET

One of Google's biggest strengths lies in using AI tools directly in its software suite. People can ask Gemini to parse through documents and photos. It can also sort through your Gmail, including handling busywork. Google showed an example of someone using it to gather receipts located within emails, stick them in a folder, and make a spreadsheet. Gemini will also suggest a trio of premade replies tailored to every email to give quick responses.

Sorting through emails doesn't seem like it would be too tough for Apple to imitate through its Mail app, and having iOS or MacOS search across its operating system for more intelligent and context-sensitive results wouldn't be too much of a stretch either. But more complex requests, like those shown at Google I/O highlighting photos and videos showing a child's growing swimming capability, do seem like they would require Apple to have a generative AI chatbot like Gemini. Something like ChatGPT, which OpenAI is rumored to be in talks with Apple to bring to iPhones, Bloomberg reported.

Google also had plenty to introduce for Search, including the AI Overview pane that provides processed results of whatever you've searched for. On mobile, Google Lens has a new feature to add vocal questions when recording a video with the app. On the Google I/O stage, Vice President of Product Rose Yao asked why "isn't this working" pointing at an inoperable part of a record player, to which the app identified and offered Search results with an AI-assembled list of suggested fixes. 

rose yao using google pixel pro 8 to search google with AI

Google VP Rose Yao demonstrating new Google Lens skills.

Google/Screenshot by CNET

Apple hasn't explored adding AI to Safari just yet, let alone flowing smart camera object identification into search results. Ditto with Google's other mobile feature that debuted in the Samsung Galaxy S24, Circle to Search, which looks up anything on your phone's screen that you draw a circle around using your finger or stylus. iPhone owners can crudely access the feature with a lengthy workaround, but it's far from as seamless as it is on Android phones.

Google also showed off a generative AI application for accessibility, an area where Apple has held the advantage for some time. Gemini Nano, the pint-size version of the chatbot for phones, will have improved its existing TalkBack screen reader for vocalizing what's on the screen, giving Apple a run for its money on its accessibility dominance. Gemini multimodality will essentially add descriptions to images in the vein of alt text on the fly. 

Then there's the upcoming Android 15 update, of course. Gemini is even further integrated into the operating system, with a feature called Gems that are pint-size versions of the chatbot dedicated to single tasks. You can make gems for, say, creating new workout routines (and cheering you on) every day, or guiding you through cooking complex meals. Android 15 also uses the chatbot to power Live, a feature for live voice conversations with AI to ask questions and get natural responses. That's plenty of functionality that Apple may not be able to imitate in iOS 18

What Apple may be the most behind in, if it's competing directly, are Google's additional ways to use generative AI to create audio and video, as well as improving its image generation. Apple prides itself on facilitating creativity, so it'll be curious if the company explores integrating generative AI into software like Photos, Final Cut and iMovie. 

AI said 120 times

Google presenters said the phrase "AI" more than 120 times on stage at Google I/O 2024. They didn't say anything about hardware.

Google/Screenshot by CNET

Apple playing to its strengths?

Despite AI taking up the entire Google I/O keynote, there were still plenty of dark spaces in the company's kingdom where the light of AI didn't reach. Software stalwarts of I/Os past like Maps and Google Suite were nowhere to be seen, and there was no mention at all of any upcoming Pixel hardware. Aside from the already-announced Pixel 8A, which it seems like Google unveiled last week to clear the decks for AI, we didn't hear anything about new flagship Pixel phones, another Pixel Fold or a follow-up to the Pixel Watch 2

Read more: Lost in the AI Jargon: Google's Big Event Was Clear as Mud

That leaves some room for Apple to make a big presentation at WWDC. We can expect the company to follow up with obvious AI integrations -- in Siri, in iOS 18 and other operating system updates, and perhaps in helping navigate or search documents. 

In addition, Google I/O didn't have a single standout AI feature to announce among its many incremental improvements and additions, leaving the door open for Apple to win headlines if it has something truly exceptional waiting in the wings. 

What that could be is hard to fathom. Apple's behind in the AI race, and it has to introduce new features and win over its users to ensure its products remain distinctive from competitors'. 

Watch this: I Tried Google's Project Astra

Editors' note: CNET used an AI engine to help create several dozen stories, which are labeled accordingly. The note you're reading is attached to articles that deal substantively with the topic of AI but are created entirely by our expert editors and writers. For more, see our AI policy.