Apple Is Playing Catch-Up to Google as It Enhances Siri, Messages, Maps and More

Unveils Improvements at World Wide Developers Conference

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New features include enhancements to photos, maps and messaging.
New features include enhancements to photos, maps and messaging. Credit: Apple
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Apple for years was in a class of its own, having upended music with iTunes and the iPod, mobile phones with the iPhone and tablet computing with the iPad. Now iPhone sales are plateauing, potentially even falling, and rivals are catching consumers' attention with new innovations such as Google and Amazon's voice-activated, learning assistants.

So Apple set out Monday at its annual World Wide Developers Conference in San Francisco to show that its software and services can still compete. But much of its presentation had a distinct feeling of catch-up.

Siri

Apple may have gotten in early on voice assistants with Siri, which is acquired in 2010 and re-introduced in 2011, but the company has been seeing stiff competition from Amazon with Alexa on its Echo device, and Google, which just a few weeks ago showcased Google Assistant and Google Home, its Echo competitor, at its own developer conference.

Seeking to regain momentum, Apple made Siri a common thread throughout its keynote presentation.

As expected, Apple opened Siri up to third-party developers, letting programmers connect it with other apps such as Uber or Domino's, as hypothetical examples. Amazon has already done the same with Alexa.

Apple also announced that it was expanding Siri from mobile devices to its Mac computers (where it is also changing the name of the operating system from to MacOS from OS X.) This move, too, follows the competition. Google recently said it would make its voice assistant available in many places, including Google Home devices and the newly announced messaging app Allo. Microsoft's virtual assistant Cortana is available in the Windows 10 desktop operating system.

The key to all of these assistants is artificial intelligence and machine learning. At Google's developer conference, the companty talked at length about how its Assistant would get smarter over time as it gets to know consumers' queries and messaging habits.

Apple Pay

At last year's developer conference, Apple said it would bring loyalty programs to Apple Pay, which allows people to pay with their phones at retail and online checkouts. On Monday, Apple announced that it is bringing Apple Pay to websites, including the mobile web, with a "pay with Apple Pay" button that will compete with credit card options and PayPal. Shoppers will authenticate the transactions with their iPhones.

Apple TV

To give credit where it's due, Apple TV beat Amazon's Fire TV and Google's ChromeCast to market by many years. Apple CEO Tim Cook last year introduced a revamped version complete with its own TV-centric app story, saying the future of TV was in apps. The announcements for Apple TV this time around were relatively small, though users will probably appreciate the new single sign-on, which allows people to sign in to multiple apps at once. Apple also said Dish Network's streaming TV service Sling was coming to Apple TV.

Apple Watch

Apple unveiled the newest operating system for its Apple Watch, the OS3. The device, first rolled out in April 2015, has been criticized by some for not being the easiest to use, or the most intuitive. But the company announced updates that are meant to address those issues, and to make it work more like the iPhone's iOS. Apple updated the watch's OS to make it easier to reply to messages, for one. Users don't have to press the reply now button, they can just begin replying. It also emphasized its activity tracker and enabled features that let friends track one another's fitness progress.

It also added Scribble, a feature that turns letters traced on Watch screens into an easily readable font. Executives on stage pointed out that the feature is available in English and Chinese, not surprising considering the company's hopes to sell well in China.

Messaging

Messaging apps have become wildly popular, with Apple's native app being challenged by Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, WeChat, Viber and a number of others. Now Apple is seeking to make its messaging app more attractive to users, rolling out a significant update with added features like rich links that preview their destinations and emojis that will be triple in size. The app will also now be able to predict an emoji that a user might want to use based on the text of the message.

Maps

Apple's Maps app will make more suggestions for restaurants and other locations, including some based on where you've typically been or what your calendar says at that time of day. Google recently expanded its mobile push to include ads in its Maps app.

Apple Music

Apple also announced the overhaul of the Apple Music interface in an effort to improve navigation, a move that had previously been reported. Apple executives said Monday that the service now has 15 million subscribers. It has been rolling out a series of ads for Apple Music lately, including one featuring Ray Liotta and DJ Khaled.

Photos

And Apple also said it was enhancing its photo features, adding better organization and the ability to put videos together automatically through a feature called Memories. That follows Google's promise to imrpove its photo organization.