A marathon, not a sprint: Apple’s AI push faces big challenges in China

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The Apple Siri AI icon is being displayed on a smartphone, with Apple Intelligence in the background. 
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Apple’s big artificial intelligence push faces some big challenges in China — one of the iPhone maker’s most critical markets — as Beijing maintains strict rules around the buzzy technology.

The uncertain path in China comes at a time when Apple’s market share is being eroded in the world’s second largest economy by a resurgent Huawei and other local smartphones players, which are talking up their AI features.

Apple Intelligence is the Cupertino giant’s play that aims to bring AI across its devices. It features an improved version of Apple’s voice assistant Siri, as well as features that automatically organize your email or transcribe and summarize audio footage.

Apple said that Apple Intelligence will roll out in U.S. English this fall, with additional languages, features and platforms due to arrive over the course of next year. The company was, however, quiet on the product offering in China during the AI launch at its annual developers conference this month.

That’s likely to do with China’s stringent rules on AI, analysts told CNBC, as Apple tries to figure out how to approach the complex market.

“China is in another world when it comes to AI given the regulatory environment there, so China is a big asterisk on Apple’s big announcements last week,” Bryan Ma, vice president of devices research at IDC, told CNBC via email.

Beijing has enacted various regulations over the past few years focused on areas ranging from data protection to large language models — the massive sets of data that underpin applications like ChatGPT.

China’s AI market is heavily regulated. Some of the rules include requirements for LLM providers to get approval for the commercial use of their models. Generative AI providers are also responsible for taking down “illegal” content.

Apple’s China AI challenges

Navigating these rules will be tricky for Apple.

Firstly, some of the features of Apple Intelligence are based on Apple’s own language model, which runs on both the phone and on the company’s own servers.

Under Chinese rules, Apple would likely need to get its AI model approved by authorities.

Secondly, one of the biggest announcements this month was that Apple’s voice assistant Siri can tap into OpenAI’s ChatGPT for certain requests — but ChatGPT is banned in China, meaning Apple would have to find an equivalent domestic partner.

Baidu and Alibaba are among China’s technology giants that have their own LLMs and voice assistants, ranking them as companies with which Apple can potentially partner.

Meanwhile, China’s internet is heavily censored with regulators concerned about the potential for AI services to generate content, which may go against Beijing’s views or ideology.

The likelihood is that Apple will have to build an on-device AI model and a cloud-based AI model that complies with local regulations, Canalys analyst Nicole Peng told CNBC over email.

The other part of the equation on AI for Apple to be successful in China, according to CCS Insight Chief Analyst Ben Wood, is for the company to create a localized AI experience on its devices that appeals to Chinese users.

“Localising the Apple Intelligence experience will be a major challenge for Apple,” Wood told CNBC. “As with all technology deployments, there are nuances to the way the service is delivered to respect the specific customs, regulations and use cases in a particular country.”

Privacy

A key part of Apple’s pitch during the AI launch was its focus on privacy. The company announced Private Cloud Compute, whereby AI is processed on servers owned by Apple. Apple said that data processed is not stored.

Whether the tech titan will be able to fully own its own servers is another question. Chinese iCloud data is stored inside servers located in China which are run by a third party.

This could mean Apple might require a similar partnership for its AI computing servers, opening the tech giant up to critcisms about how private the data actually is.

“Maintaining complete user privacy in an AI era in heavily regulated markets such as China will be the biggest test for Apple yet,” Neil Shah, partner at Counterpoint Research, told CNBC. “Its going to be challenging for Apple to have fully controlled own private compute servers in China.”

CCS Insights’ Wood said Apple’s focus on privacy could help introduce AI features to the market. China passed a major data protection law in 2021, which looks to limit how information is collected and stored.

“Apple’s on-going focus on privacy and security practices may help placate local regulators and Apple has not been afraid to make concessions when required,” Wood said.

Apple’s path to AI in China

CNBC has contacted Apple over Private Cloud Compute and the company’s AI ambitions in China. A spokesperson did not directly address those questions, but pointed CNBC to an interview in the Fast Company business magazine with Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering.

Federighi expressed the desire to bring Apple Intelligence to China.

“We certainly want to find a way to bring all of our best product capabilities to all of our customers,” he said in the Fast Company interview, adding that “in some regions of the world, there are regulations that need to be worked through.”

The Apple executive said the process was under way to introduce the AI products to China, but gave no timeline.

Smartphone makers globally are talking up their AI features as a way to sell high-end phones to consumers who want to hold onto their device for longer.

Apple has been facing a number of challenges in China, where its market share fell to 15% in the first quarter of 2024, versus 20% in the same period the year before, according to Canalys data. Huawei, whose smartphone business was crippled by U.S. sanctions, revived once more and is now the biggest smartphone player in China, where it competes with Apple with phones targeting the premium segment.

Apple’s lag behind domestic rivals in launching AI features in China is unlikely to be detrimental to iPhone sales.

“For Apple, deploying China-grade Apple Intelligence is going to be a marathon and not a sprint. It will be deployed in phases over the years until Apple is confident and until then it will have to face some competition,” Counterpoint Research’s Shah said.

Wood said Apple’s control of its hardware and software integration will allow it to deliver a different experience from that of its rivals.

“Apple has an uncanny ability to explain its services and features better than rivals, even if it is essentially delivering the same experience or a subset of what rivals can offer,” Wood said.

“Despite the current focus on AI by rival China-based smartphone makers, Apple should still be in a strong position.”

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