Former Apple employees, a new startup, want to bring artificial intelligence to the desktop

Former Apple employees, a new startup, want to bring artificial intelligence to the desktop

AI chatbots, like ChatGPT, have so far remained fairly impersonal, existing outside of the apps and data we use every day. A new startup by three former Apple employees called Software Applications Incorporated hopes to change that.

The company’s CEO, Ari Weinstein, is a repeat founder, having sold his last startup, iOS automation app Workflow, to Apple in 2017 alongside co-founder and CTO Konrad Kramer. This time, they’re joined by Kim Peverett, a 10-year Apple vet who was on stage at this year’s WWDC and previously oversaw product management for various teams, including Safari, Messages, FaceTime, and user privacy.

In their first interview since leaving Apple to start something new, the trio told me their focus is on bringing generative AI to the desktop in a way that “moves operating systems forward.” Although they don’t have a product to brag about yet, they are working on creating prototypes using a variety of large language models, including OpenAI’s GPT and Meta’s Llama 2. The ultimate goal, Weinstein said, is to recreate “the magic that I felt it when I used computers in the 80s and 90s.

“If you run an Apple II or an Atari, you get this basic console where you can write basic code as a user and program the computer to do what you want,” he explains. “Nowadays, it’s just the opposite. Everyone spends time in highly optimized operating systems with pieces of software designed to be very easy to use but not flexible.

“We believe that language models and artificial intelligence provide us with the ingredients to make a new kind of software.”

He offers an example: “Sometimes you have a browser window open with a schedule on it, and you just want to say, ‘Add this to my calendar,’ and somehow, there’s no way to do it… We think this language provides us with models.” And artificial intelligence is the ingredients to make a new kind of software that can unleash this fundamental computing power and make ordinary people able to use computers to actually solve their problems.

The team’s love of early PC nostalgia is evident through its software application website, which is literally Mac OS 8 running in a browser tab. Weinstein says they hope to hire up to 10 employees in the next year, including a designer and some machine learning experts. They’ve already raised $6.5 million in funding from OpenAI’s Altman, Figma CEO Dylan Field, and other notable Silicon Valley names.

In a world where venture capital money is drying up and mass layoffs are happening across the tech world, raising that much before you even have a product is a remarkable achievement, although the success of the previous trio certainly helps. “I met Ari on Twitter when we were in high school,” Leefield says. “He is one of the most talented people I know, and I will support anything he does.”

Apple doesn’t buy startups very often, and when it does, they rarely survive as distinct products like Weinstein’s latest venture. Shortly after purchasing Workflow, it was renamed into the Shortcuts app, which comes pre-installed on iPhone and Mac devices. If you have an iPhone 15, you can use Shortcuts to create all kinds of use cases for the new action button on the side of the device, such as controlling your home’s smart lights or triggering an action in a third-party app.

Given that Apple appears to have faltered in the generative AI race, the natural question is whether Weinstein, Kramer and Peverett felt they needed to leave the company to build what they are working on now.

When I ask him, Weinstein refutes this idea: “We started this company because we’re really excited about what’s happening in generative AI right now, because we’re excited about working together again, and because we love the open creative environment to begin with.” Meanwhile, Peverett adds that Apple’s in-person work policy became unhelpful after moving away from Cupertino during the pandemic.

While a few startups like Rewind are building custom desktop AI systems, none seem to have as broad a vision as that of software applications, suggesting they have an open path at the moment. And with most consumer software companies primarily designing for mobile devices these days, it’s refreshing to see a team focusing on Macs instead.

“The average interaction on mobile is measured in seconds, and the average interaction on desktop is measured in minutes or hours,” Weinstein says. “So saving people time on the desktop is exciting for us.”

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