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Apple Design Award nominees spotlight indie developers and startups, but largely ignore AI (except for Arc)

With its Apple Design Award shortlist, Apple is honoring independent apps and startups rather than big tech companies — including those offering AI-powered chatbots.

At a time when lawmakers and regulators are questioning its App Store model, Apple, which publishes an annual list of the best and most technologically innovative software on its platform, is now turning its attention to smaller companies. For example, ChatGPT is not on Apple’s shortlist. Instead, Apple favors small and medium-sized app developers such as Copilot Money, SmartGym, recipe app Crouton, creative app Procreate Dreams, Gentler Streak, and venture-backed startups such as creative app Rooms and redesigned web browser Arc Search.

The latter combines artificial intelligence with an agent who can navigate for you, and adds a new feature that lets you ask “Call Arc” questions by holding the phone up to your ear, but it’s the only app on the list that mentions the technology in its description, which has taken the App Store, and the tech industry, by storm over the past year.

Despite ChatGPT’s launch last year and record downloads, both Apple and Google avoided naming it “App of the Year.” The Americans with Disabilities Act should have given Apple another chance to recognize this innovation, but it was once again ignored.

Instead, Apple’s shortlist looks at independent games, such as Rytmos from Copenhagen’s Floppy Club, match-3 puzzle game Infinity on Apple Arcade, The Wreck from Paris-based indie studio The Pixel Hunt, and The Bear from Germany’s self-proclaimed “group of weird creatives” Mucks Games.

This year, the non-game apps Apple chose to highlight were often independent works, such as Meditate, a meditation timer developed by Indian indie developer RhythmicWorks Software; Sunlitt, a sunlight tracking app developed by a small team led by Italian indie developer Nicholas Mariniello; Dudel Draw, a drawing app developed by American indie company Silly Little Apps; Bears Gratitude, a journaling app developed by Australian developer Isuru Wanasinghe; and Rooms, a creative app for designing imaginative spaces in an 8-bit style developed by Things Inc., designed by former Google employees and backed by a16z. (Apple gave Rooms a double nod, and it was actually nominated in two categories.)

That’s not to say there aren’t some bigger developers on the list, like Korean developer Neowiz, which was nominated for its title P’s Lie, 505 Games’ Death Stranding Director’s Cut, Genshin Impact creator HoYoverse’s Honkai Impact 3, and Activision’s Call of Duty: Warzone Mobile. But in those cases, Apple chose these games in part because they use Apple technology, like MetalFX or optimizations for its M1 chips and above (…or maybe because they use in-app purchases!).

Other games nominated this year include What the Car?, NYT Games, Hello Kitty Island Adventure, Cityscapes: Sim Builder, How We Feel, Ahead: Emotions Coach, The Bear, Lost in Play, Wavelength, Little Nightmares, and a handful of apps and games built for Vision Pro, such as Blackbox, Loóna, Synth Riders, as well as djay, NBA, and Sky Guide. Notably, several of these were originally built for iOS and later brought to Vision Pro.

The “Inclusion” section also promotes Apple’s global app community, including EU members that are being regulated through the Digital Markets Act. In this section, Apple nominated oko (Belgium), an app for low vision users, Complete Anatomy 2024 (Ireland), an app for neurodiverse users, Tiimo (Denmark), and games sold by digital storefront Humble Bundle, Unpacking, Quadline by Kovalov Ivan of Ukraine, and Crayola Adventures.

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