January 7

Apple entered the 2010s just as the iPhone began to explode in popularity. The iPhone became the most successful consumer product, ever. Sales surged for another five years and still make up a majority of Apple’s revenues. However, we exit the decade with the iPhone making up a smaller portion of Apple’s business than ever before, as the company diversifies into strong lineups of wearables, tablets and services offerings.

But nothing is a simple straight line. Apple had to graduate through the passing of its founder, juggle relationships with an ever-expanding list of consumer and professional market segments, and adapt to the public attention and scrunity that only comes along as a consequence of being the biggest company in the world. This is a decade in Apple, on one page.

It’s been a wild ten years. The decade is also personally relevant to me as it lines up with my blossoming interest in the company and my entrance into the Apple community. I bought my first Apple product, a base model iMac, in late 2010. This article is not a comprehensive, exhaustive, rundown of every single new Apple product, event, and scandal.

The best way to describe this post is that it is the the decade as I remember it. I intentionally ignored some things that I deemed as inconsequential. I have tried to cover everything that I think had a direct relevance on the course of the company, at least from my perspective. If this post leaves you wanting more, listen to me and Zac explore this even further on the New Years episode of the Happy Hour podcast.

 

2010

iPad

Apple kicked off 2010 with the unveiling of its next big thing, the iPad. On 27th January, Steve Jobs took to the stage to unveil the long-rumored Apple tablet.

In the 2006-2009 timeframe, the PC industry was trying to make ‘netbooks’ a thing; computers that were cheap and cheerful to get basic web browsing and email done. Jobs began the iPad presentation by asking the question as to whether a third category of device can exist, a product that would fit between a smartphone and a laptop. Jobs said this product category would have to be better at key tasks like web browsing, enjoying media and more, better than both the laptop and the phone for it to have a reason to exist. Naturally, he decried the category of netbooks as ‘not being better than anything’.

The iPad was Apple’s answer. Apple redesigned every app it shipped on the iPhone for the bigger 9.7-inch canvas, which included new UI inventions like the popover controls, a clever combination of Mac menus and inspector windows. The iPad stripped away PC conventions because it ran the same operating system as the iPhone, which made the iPad accessible and incredibly easy to pick up and use. Safari, Mail, Photos, and Calendar for iPad struck a careful balance of capability and simplicity. The keynote also implied ambitions for the iPad as more than just a third category; Apple demoed apps like the touch-optimized iWork suite to show that one day, the iPad would take over from the role of laptops too.

For the iWork apps, there was of course no traditional PC file system. Instead, documents would live inside the apps in a gallery view. Apple didn’t want the iPad to have the complexity of the Finder or Windows Explorer. It was an aspirational idea, to make the app manage its files and its files only, but it was something that never really stuck. As of iOS 9, iOS included a centralized view of documents and files through the iCloud Drive application. This would become even more prominent as the Files app in iOS 11.

One of the other new apps introduced that day was iBooks, Apple’s entrance into the ebook market. 2010 was the height of the Kindle’s popularity, and Jobs even directly addressed the Kindle in the iPad presentation saying Apple wanted to stand on its shoulders with iBooks and the iBookstore. What Apple didn’t foresee was the legal trouble that would come out of it all. The contractual arrangement Apple agreed with publishers was very similar to the 70/30 split for the App Store; publishers set the price, Apple took commission. The agency model was seen by regulators as anticompetitive, and Apple settled a supreme court class-action case in 2014 for hundreds of millions of dollars. Apple’s activity in ebooks was also put under scrutiny by a court-appointed monitor. Years on, Apple executives blamed these measures as the reason why it never got a stronghold in the ebooks market.

In an on-stage interview a couple months after the iPad was released, Jobs told Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher his vision of the future of the computer industry, comparing PCs to ‘specialist’ trucks and iPads to mainstream cars.

The iPad was instantly divisive with many passing it off as ‘just a big iPod touch’, but it wouldn’t take long for the iPad to define the modern tablet era. Using a touch-first operating system (then called iPhone OS) was the right call. Apple doubled down on the iPhone likeness in marketing by highlighting its familiarity to the world, ads said ‘you already know how to use it’. The iPad may not have taken over all of computing in the manner that some envisaged, but it has unquestionably made a long-standing mark in the sand. Even in 2019, though, laptops aren’t that irrelevant to be relegated to the role of trucks though. If anything, the phone has cannibalized mainstream computing more than tablets.

The iPad was the product that really enthralled myself into the Apple world; I can remember researching Apple slate rumors in the run-up to the January 27th keynote. I could see the potential … and frankly I just thought it was cool. 

What’s kind of remarkable is that ten years on, Apple still sells iPads that look very similar to that first-generation incarnation. The latest models of $329 iPad and $499 iPad Air may be thinner, and many magnitudes more powerful, but the essence of the 2010 iPad is eminently visible. The super-slim-bezel gesture-based iPad Pros are more of what you would naturally expect from a decade of technological evolution, but that design is currently reserved for the pricey-high end models only.

The Adobe Flash fight

One of the controversies surrounding the iPad was Apple’s choice not to support Adobe Flash in the web browser. Apple recommended that website makers adopt the HTML5 technology stack instead, but it was still early days for rich open web standards. 

In 2010, almost all video content on the web was exposed through embedded Flash players and a sizable chunk of entire websites were written in Flash, and therefore did not work on the iPad at all. 

Adobe and Apple got into pretty heated arguments about the relevance of Flash for the future of the web, and Adobe also campaigned to make Apple open up the App Store to Flash-based applications as well. The debate got enough public attention that Jobs was compelled to write an open letter, which is still available to read on Apple’s website, detailing Apple’s reasons for not supporting Flash. 

Jobs and Apple said that Flash would hurt battery life and performance, and that existing Flash websites weren’t built for touch so they wouldn’t work well even if they could be loaded on the iPad. In retort, Adobe promoted the benefits of ‘open’ Android and said it would ship a Flash plugin for Android web browser to show customers that Apple was only concerned about its own interests (Adobe’s argument was that Apple denied Flash so that users would have to buy software through the App Store instead).

Flash did come out on Android phones later in 2010. However, much of Jobs arguments were ultimately proven right. Web Flash content ran poorly on mobile devices. By the time that an Android device could run Flash well, HTML5 had taken an irreversible foothold. 

Websites replaced Flash video with HTML5 players rather quickly in the wake of the iPad (and iPhone) popularity. It took longer for interactive Flash-based websites like games or restaurant menus to transition, but the richness of the App Store ecosystem helped to paper over those deficiencies. 

Mobile Flash never really caught on. In 2017, Adobe announced that it will end-of-life Flash for desktop at the end of 2020.

iPhone 4 and Antennagate

2010 also saw Apple release its biggest update to the iPhone to date, with the ‘all-new’ iPhone 4. Ten years on, the iPhone 4 continues to be viewed by a lot of people as the best iPhone Apple ever made. (It was also infamously leaked by Gizmodo, after a prototype was found in a bar and sold on.)

The iPhone 4 featured a precise stainless steel and glass exterior, a dramatic departure from the plasticky iPhone 3GS. It also introduced major new product features like the first-ever Retina display, FaceTime video calling, and was the first iPhone to start paying real attention to the camera quality: the iPhone 4 featured a 5-megapixel sensor, added an LED flash, and could record HD 720P video. With iOS 4.1 in September, the iPhone 4 even got rudimentary HDR photo taking capabilities — a computational photography technique that remains relevant to this day.

It was a fantastic, timeless, phone. The iPhone 4 also brought with it the biggest PR fiasco Apple has ever had to face. Despite the company growing many times over in size, I still think Antennagate was Apple’s biggest ever public relations disaster to date. Antennagate was truly national news. 

Jobs cancelled a vacation to hold an emergency press conference in the middle of July. The innovative antenna design Jobs had explained a month prior in the WWDC keynote had become a laughing stock, with the notches in the case serving as a very viral ‘X marks the spot’ demo of the iPhone losing all cellular signal.

At the end of the 30-minute Antennagate press conference, in which Apple explained that ‘all phones had weak spots’, the company started up a free case program (as plastic protective cases would mean users could grip their phones without causing interference). It didn’t have enough of its own brand Bumper cases, so it also partnered with third party case makers like Belkin and Griffin for the giveaway. iPhone 4 owners had to download the ‘iPhone 4 Case Program’ app to order their complimentary case.

Apple’s response largely succeeded at silencing the critics and Apple sold the iPhone 4 for 18 months without changes to the antenna or hardware of any kind. That being said, the iPhone 4S featured a tweaked antenna design that was not susceptible to the same ‘death grip’, by adding a second notch on the bottom left of the phone. (This design first debuted in the CDMA-only Verizon iPhone 4 in January 2011).

An amusing sideshow of the iPhone 4 is the saga of the white model. Apple first promised that the white iPhone would ship alongside the black model on the iPhone 4’s release day. Apple released a statement the day before launch that the white models were proving harder to manufacture than expected and delayed the white model release date to mid July. July came and went, and Apple said the color variant would be available before the end of the year. Then, it was delayed again. The white iPhone 4 was finally released on April 28, 2011.

The iconic 2010 MacBook Air

Holding similar esteem to the iPhone 4, Apple also released the second-generation MacBook Air at a special October media event. (By the way, Apple announced the first versions of AirPlay and AirPrint at this very same event, technologies that remain heavily used to this day.)

The first-generation MacBook Air was sleek but slow and expensive. Apple’s second stab at the ultrabook was a huge success. Eschewing physical hard drives, the MacBook Air’s iconic taper design was achieved by going all in on solid state storage. The SSDs were soldered directly onto the logic board, which was bad for repairability but good for miniaturization. In the following years, all of Apple’s laptops adopted the soldered SSD approach.

Apple also began to bring over iOS concepts to the Mac, like the ability for the laptop to wake ‘instantly’ from sleep when the lid was opened. The 2010 MacBook Air was offered in 11-inch and 13-inch screen sizes. 

Apple iterated on the laptop several times across the decade but has retained the overall tapered aesthetic because the machine has been so well received historically. The 13-inch version was significantly more popular though, and Apple stopped selling the 11-inch Air in 2016. 

Much of the fanfare around the Retina MacBook Air in 2018 originated from the fact it had kept so many elements from the 2010 iteration.

 

2011

Apple sues Samsung

The height of the ‘patent wars’, a period of time where Apple and other mobile phone makers filed lawsuits against each other to the point of ad nauseam, happened in 2011 when Apple formally sued Samsung in April. Apple accused Samsung of stealing the iPhone’s unique design and innovations, producing copycat Samsung Galaxy handsets.

Apple wanted a sales injunction on Samsung phones, to force Samsung to pay a license fee for every phone sold, and compensation for phones sold up to that point. Both sides countersued each other into oblivion but incredibly the case went to trial in 2012.

The discovery process revealed some incredible secrets from the Apple archives, including many zany prototypes of the original iPhone hardware. The public also got a rare opportunity to read private Apple internal communications, like this outline of Apple’s Top 100 meeting, which includes juicy morsels of things-that-never-happened like a ‘magic wand’ for Apple TV. Other findings included a presentation that read ‘Consumers want what we don’t have’, referring to Apple’s lack of competitiveness in the smartphone market.

Just like how all big legal cases take forever to be resolved, Apple vs Samsung was no exception. The case was finally put to bed in 2018. Apple ‘won’ in the fact that the court ruled Samsung had to pay about $600 million for infringing a few of Apple’s patents, when all was said and done. Apple had to accept a lot of aggravation to get that outcome, though, including losing several key employees who left the company because they were fed up with being called back to court on a regular basis. For its part, Samsung has diversified its products away from being mere Apple copycats. Whereas a line of similarity could be very easily drawn to the 2011-era TouchWiz operating system and Apple’s iOS interface, the same can not be said now. Samsung’s phones simply do not look like iPhone rip-offs anymore and — in many ways — found success by doubling down on their differentiation.

iCloud, iMessage and PC-free

iCloud is now a foundational feature across all of Apple’s platforms but it didn’t start to become a thing until 2011 with iOS 5. Apple’s previous attempt at cloud services was the meagre MobileMe suite, which cost $99 a year for email, contacts and calendar hosting. 

The context here is important. One of the black marks against the iPhone at the time was that the Android operating system was truly standalone, whereas iOS was still tied to the iPod model of syncing with a computer through iTunes. You couldn’t activate an iOS device without first connecting it to a PC.

Android also offered free push email and contact sync through Google’s various web apps like Gmail, and you could backup to their servers directly from your device. Meanwhile, Apple only offered the MobileMe suite of cloud email, contacts and calendars — which was a paid service and cost $99 per year.

Apple tackled the criticism with iOS 5, rolling out new ‘PC-free’ features to iOS and, at the same time, reworking MobileMe under the new name: iCloud. For every version up to then, updating an iOS device meant plugging in the Dock Connector and syncing with a PC. 

From iOS 5.1 onwards, users could set up and update their devices independently, over-the-air. iOS 5 included other key features that previously required owners to go back to their PC, like the ability to add/delete calendars and mailboxes, on-device photo editing, and more. Checking off these boxes were important steps for the ‘future of computing’ iPad to be taken seriously, and helped Apple compete with Android in the phone space.

iCloud meant every Apple user could save their contacts and calendars in the cloud, and have changes push automatically to all of their devices. iCloud also included other things like cloud device backup, iWork document storage, Photo Stream (the predecessor to iCloud Photo Library), and iTunes in the Cloud.

Each iCloud account came with 5 GB free storage, and you could pay $100/year to get an extra 50 GB. Fast forward to present today and you can get 50 GB iCloud storage for $0.99 per month, or $12 a year. You can now max out at 2 TB iCloud for roughly the same price as the 50 GB plan in 2011. However, much to the chagrin of everyone in the world, the free tier remains at that same 5 GB level.

iOS 5 also introduced iMessage, bringing rich encrypted messaging to the core of the operating system with read receipts, multimedia, typing indicators and more. iMessage launched only on iOS; iPhone, iPad and iPod touch. It came to the Mac a year later with OS X Mountain Lion. iMessage grew into a platform of its own in the years since, and ‘blue bubble’ messaging has imbued itself into human culture, especially in the United States.

Steve Jobs dies

Amidst ongoing rumors about his health, Jobs resigned from the CEO position in August of 2011 with a perfectly written open letter:

I have always said if there ever came a day when I could no longer meet my duties and expectations as Apple’s CEO, I would be the first to let you know. Unfortunately, that day has come.

He became chairman of the board, but sadly passed away only couple a months later on October 5th, only hours after Apple announced the iPhone 4S. Much has been written about passing of Jobs, and this is not the place to reiterate all of history.

However, his death clearly marks a juncture in the history of the company and that happens to be within the decade. It’s impossible to know how Apple may have acted if he had stayed alive, but his impact and his influence cannot be overstated. The most obvious repercussions of his passing flare up about a year later, which will discuss further down the page.

The first innings of Siri

The iPhone 4S heralded Apple’s first stab at Siri, the voice assistant that was (literally) ahead of its time. 

Apple acquired Siri in 2010 and spent the next year turning the ‘smoke and mirrors demo’ into a furnished product as the hero feature of the iPhone 4S. Google had rolled out voice actions and dictation on the Android platform, but Siri promised a more humane conversational interaction with the phone. 

Even more acutely than its current reputation, Siri’s launch was plagued with issues of unresponsiveness and crashing servers. Apple iterated on the Siri service to address the primary issues over the following months. 

Since then, Siri has become an integral part of all Apple hardware even if the AI itself hasn’t moved on much since the initial 2011 incarnation. Siri has been getting better, gradually, although we are still waiting for the big leap that will make voice input as important as the keyboard and mouse. The things that Apple promoted in Siri’s launch marketing — checking the weather, setting timers and alarms — remain the most common usages of Siri in 2019.

 

2012

The surprise Mountain Lion

Apple switched up the new iPhone calendar from summer to fall with the iPhone 4, and it would change up its cycle of Mac software a few months after.

On February 16, Apple announced the next version of OS X: Mountain Lion. The reveal was a surprise to everyone on the outside; rather than hold a press conference, Apple held private briefings with news publications. 

Mountain Lion was important to Apple’s history not for any particular feature, but because it was the release that pulled back the ceremony of Apple’s desktop operating system, and it was fashioned to be more inline with the iOS release pattern. Apple committed to releasing OS X versions on a yearly basis from then on.

Before Mountain Lion, flagship OS X releases came out roughly every two-three years and each update was a per-machine paid upgrade. Mountain Lion was released exclusively through the Mac App Store, and cost $19.99 for unlimited installs on the same Apple ID. Mac operating system upgrades releases became free starting with OS X Mavericks in 2013.

Retina MacBook Pro

Apple brought Retina to the iPhone in 2010 but it took another two years for the high-density screens to make their way to the iPad and the Mac. The 2012 MacBook Pro holds a special place in my heart, as it was the first ever MacBook I owned.

It also set the course for every future pro notebook Apple shipped. Crossing the Retina threshold for the display was achieved by upping the screen’s native resolution to 2880×1800, or 1400×900 with logical pixel doubling. 

The prior-generation of MacBook Pros could be configured build-to-order with a 1680×1050 display, so this was technically a regression in available screen real estate. Apple shipped display scaling modes in OS X to try to simulate the ‘lost’ resolution for customers that demanded it.

Like the Air a couple years prior, Apple removed the optical drive to cut down on thickness and weight. Apple also removed the Ethernet port, requiring people who wanted to get online with a wire to buy a $30 Thunderbolt dongle. 

The laptop power connects featured a second-generation MagSafe connector, which meant existing Mac power adapters also would not work without a dongle. MagSafe 2 was thinner than its predecessor but some questioned the need for it given the 2010 MacBook Air could achieve its sleekness despite featuring first-gen MagSafe. 

When the Retina 15-inch was introduced, Apple discontinued the 17-inch MacBook Pro citing lack of demand. We’ve only just seen Apple start to edge back towards that size this year with the 16-inch MacBook Pro. The 13-inch MacBook Pro would go Retina a year later.

Apple Maps blunders

If Antennagate was Apple’s biggest crisis, Apple Maps is a close second — and definitely the company’s biggest software blunder of the decade.

iPhone OS 1.0 through iOS 4 used a Maps app that relied on Google Maps data. Jobs praised its collaborations with Google in the early years of the iPhone but as Google entered the phone space with Android, the relationship soured. As early as 2009, Jobs ordered internal Apple teams to figure out a plan to get rid of Google Maps on the phone. Apple Maps was finally ‘ready’ to ship in 2012 with iOS 6.

Shipping Apple Maps was a huge technical win for Apple. The iPhone Maps app had been trailing behind Android, the latter of which was already offering turn-by-turn directions and vector-based infinitely-scalable maps. The Maps app was basic in comparison, relying on downloading bitmap image tiles at every zoom level and simply not offering TomTom-esque direction features. 

It has been reported that Google would only give Apple access to these capabilities if it signed a new contract which would see Apple give over sensitive customer data to Google. Clearly Apple refused, either because of the onerous terms or because it was already working on the in-house maps project.

Apple Maps enabled the iPhone to catch up on these features and also added some entirely new views like Flyover — allowing customers to zoom through rich 3D models of cities.

However, the launch of Apple Maps was not met with glee. Customers instantly saw gaping weaknesses in the map data, particularly in more rural areas of the world. Apple Maps quickly gained a reputation for being unreliable, with poor navigation and a very sparse point-of-interest database. 

Just a week after iOS 6 shipped to the public, the backlash was so fierce that Apple put out a public statement apologizing for the state of the application. Apple posted the letter on its website, signed by CEO Tim Cook. 

Cook promised that Apple ‘doing everything we can to make Maps better’ and pointed frustrated customers to the App Store, promoting rival apps like MapQuest and Waze, or even adding the maps.google.com web-app to the iPhone home screen. A native Google Maps app did not hit the App Store until two months after iOS 6 shipped. 

Waze now celebrates September 28 annually as ‘Tim Cook day’, claiming that Cook’s endorsement of Waze was a catalyst for the app’s growth in the US market. For Apple’s part, the company slowly rolled out improvements to the Maps app, addressing obvious issues like drooping buildings in Flyover with software updates. It also added more content partners to flesh out the underlying map data. Fast forward to 2019 and now the entirety of the US in Apple Maps is covered by new map data that is wholly collected and maintained by Apple — no outside partners. Apple plans to roll out the ‘new map’ to more countries across 2020.

Apple fires Scott Forstall

As I alluded to earlier, the most obvious juncture in the Jobs/Cook transition was the firing of Forstall in late October 2012. Forstall was Jobs’ close friend, working with Jobs on software as much as Jobs worked with Ive on hardware. After Jobs’ death, rumors started swirling that Forstall’s confrontational approach was angering other executives. The Apple Maps debacle was the last straw.

It is reported that Forstall refused to sign the apology letter, as he did not believe Apple needed to officially apologize for the Maps mess. Cook signed the letter himself, and would fire Forstall almost exactly a month later. 

Apple announced the shakeup in a press release that described ‘changes to increase collaboration across hardware, software and services’.

Forstall’s departure saw the rise of Craig Federighi to the top job as head of iOS and OS X, and placed Jony Ive as leader of the Human Interface group, promoted from just head of Industrial Design, giving him purview over Apple’s software design direction for the first time.

In the same announcement, Apple’s head of retail John Browett was also fired. He still holds the record of the shortest term as an Apple executive. Browett took over from Ron Johnson in February 2012, which meant he lasted just eight months in the role. Browett was hated by Apple retail store employees for his aggressive cost-cutting policies that reduced hiring and staff hours. 

Apple’s next retail SVP, Angela Ahrendts, would not be announced until October 2013.

 

2013

The radical redesign of iOS 7

The iPhone UI had always relied on rich textures and life-like representations of materials and objects, but the trend of skeuomorphism had really been accelerated by the iPad era where developers were actively encouraged to exploit the full-screen one-app-at-a-time iOS multitasking model to transform the iPad’s large screen for each task. To make the device feel familiar, textured visual decoration was also encouraged to further extend the interaction metaphors. For example, the iPad Calendar app looked like a leather-bound desk calendar, complete with leather stitching and torn-off paper adornments.

These ideas gradually spiralled out of control. Whilst many components of the era are sorely missed today — like consistent and recognizable button shapes — it had been taken too far. Every new iOS app was competing in a fashion contest. It wouldn’t take long before the entire identities of applications were tied to the textures that they used. By 2013, the fad was wearing off. Game Center became a laughing stock for its green felt backgrounds and about four different system apps featured various styles of Corinthian leather (a Steve Jobs’ favorite) and gray linen.

The culmination of Jobs’ death, Forstall’s ousting and Ive’s new-found mandate over all of Apple human interface resulted in iOS 7. Apple redesigned the entire aesthetic of its mobile operating system in about eight months. iOS 7 wasn’t just a transition from skeuomorphic tendencies, it was a downright rejection. 

If iOS 6 had tread too far towards realism, we reflect on iOS 7 as being too far in the opposite direction. It was extreme sanitisation of Apple’s software UIs. App interfaces were reduced to simple white chrome with minor splashes of color to suggest interactivity. Icons in toolbars became clinically angular 1px stroked glyphs, and the home screen app icons were reduced to simple geometric shapes and background gradients. Buttons no longer looked like buttons, they looked like webpage links. You had to be Sherlock Holmes to find a drop shadow anywhere in the system, a dramatic departure from the previous versions where nearly every UI element had some combination of shadow, gloss, or emboss effect applied to them.

Apple’s rush to distance themselves from the past showed in the end product. iOS 7 was buggy and ill-considered. In the years since, we have seen Apple reverse course on many of the extremes. It was necessary to break away from the skeuo-era, but they clearly overshot the mark in their initial attempts. What has been surprising is how slowly Apple has addressed the issues and rough edges. Buttons that look like buttons started being introduced as early as iOS 8, but it took several releases for them to truly become staples of the platform again. Friendly, humane, icon glyphs only returned this year in iOS 13 with SF Symbols. More than five years on, I am still left wanting more from the way iPhone and iPad software looks and behaves. 

iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c 

In the fall of 2013, Apple released the iPhone 5s and the iPhone 5c. In previous years, the new iPhone lineup was always composed of a new high-end phone, as well as the predecessor model at a lower price. 2013 was the first time they released two new iPhones simultaneously, with the iPhone 5c as the cheaper model. The 5c was initially sold for the subsidized price of $99 on a two-year contract, compared to the usual-flagship $199 price for the 5s. 

The 5c’s plastic body and older internal components meant that it was largely overshadowed by the (literal and figurative) new shiny iPhone 5s, at least in public perception. The iPhone 5s introduced the space gray and gold color finishes, as well as the Touch ID fingerprint home button. 

At the time, fingerprint sensors had a mediocre reputation for being slow and unreliable, and were typically only found in enterprise laptops as a security feature. Touch ID flipped the world on its head, proved the naysayers wrong with a system that was both convenient and secure, and brought biometrics into the mainstream. Touch ID could be used for device unlock, authorizing iTunes & App Store purchases, and an API was made available to third-party apps.

The iPhone 5c didn’t have anything new apart from its unapologetically plastic rainbow-coloured exterior. Initial market reception was underwhelming, but it actually saw steady sales across its lifetime. In future years, Apple has continued to release multiple iPhones at a time although their exact strategy has varied. For the current cycle, Apple launched three flagship iPhone 11 models and rumors point to four new high-end iPhones for 2020.

iPad Air

Apple announced the next major addition to the iPad lineup on October 22. After a few generations of the iPad 2 design, the Air was the next big leap forward for the tablet. It featured skinnier side bezels, a thinner 7.5mm chassis and a 25% reduction in weight. Apple upgraded the front and rear cameras significantly, starting a brief streak of marketing the rear shooter as an “iSight” camera. 

One criticism of the product is that it lacked a Touch ID home button, despite launching later than the iPhone 5s. However, the ‘creation versus consumption’ debate was still raging and many reviewers were concentrated on the weaknesses of the iOS operating system for productivity needs. It turned out that Apple wouldn’t really try to start addressing this domain of complaints until until iOS 9 with the addition of iPad features like split-screen multitasking and Picture-in-Picture video.

Apple iterated on the iPad Air in 2014 with the iPad Air 2, which was even thinner. The iPad Air brand was then temporarily discontinued, but the tenets of the original Air design have become a mainstay of Apple’s lower-end tablets. The 9.7-inch iPad Pro, 5th generation iPad, 6th generation and 7th generation iPad are essentially iPad Airs with upgraded internals, even if they didn’t strictly share a name. Apple brought back the iPad Air brand in 2019.

 

2014

Apple buys Beats

Apple acquired Beats in May 2014 for $3 billion. It remains Apple’s largest acquisition in monetary terms. Beats was most well known for its ‘premium brand’ headphones but Apple became interested in the company for its streaming service, Beats Music. Tim Cook said he was enthralled by Beats’ human-curated playlists rather than purely algorithmic mixes. Apple would integrate Jimmy Iovine into Apple to help launch the Apple Music streaming service in 2015. It also saw opportunity in the $1 billion / year headphone accessory business. 

Although Apple was criticized at the time for spending lavishly on a ‘crappy headphones’ company, the deal was actually great value for Apple. Beats headphones were selling well in the United States but were yearning for better international distribution, something Apple could provide to boost revenues from the division. Beats enabled Apple to get a streaming service off the ground quickly, with little financial outlay. Beats was a profitable acquisition and Apple made back its initial investment within two years. 

Sales from iTunes music purchases had been slowly declining in the face of burgeoning competition from streaming services like Spotify, and Beats was Apple’s way in to the modern music market. Nowadays, the seeds of all of Apple’s content services initiatives can be traced back to the Beats acquisition. 

On the hardware front, Apple has kept Beats running as a separate entity, offering both Beats and own-brand lines of audio products. It has used its expertise in quality audio processing to improve the audio of the newer Beats products.

Swift and WWDC 2014

Apple put a lot of focus on developer-facing tools and APIs with the WWDC 2014 announcements, including adding the extension system to let third-party apps integrate with the OS like never before. Extensions powered features such as presenting apps in the system share sheet, third-party keyboards and widgets in the Today view. WWDC was also the venue for the unveiling of Apple’s new programming language, Swift. 

Swift debuted with big ambitions to be a universal programming language spanning app development to low-level systems programming, with expressive syntax and more safety guarantees than Objective-C could provide, whilst also pushing for bare metal performance and efficiency goals. Swift became an open-source project in 2015 and this has opened up the language to wider domains that just app development for Apple platforms. In 2019, we saw Apple commit to Swift even further with a new declarative UI framework designed to utilize all of Swift’s features and syntax.

In terms of user-facing features, iOS 8 added hot-word activation for Siri so users could perform Siri requests hands-free just by saying ‘Hey Siri’ to the air. However, the first implementations required the phone to be plugged into power for ‘Hey Siri’ listening to be enabled. iPhone 6s and later devices featured dedicated coprocessors to support the (now commonplace) always-listening Hey Siri experience.

The WWDC presentation for iOS 8 also included a preview of iCloud Photo Library, the biggest update to Apple’s cloud photo offering since iCloud was introduced in 2011. Whereas Photo Stream would only hold onto your last 1000 shots for a month, iCloud Photo Library was what everyone actually wanted from a photos service: a true permanent location for your entire photo library. New images and edits would automatically sync across all of your Apple devices. 

iCloud Photo Library rolled out to iPhone and iPad with iOS 8.1 in the fall of 2014, and the feature came to the Mac in early 2015 with the new Mac Photos app, which replaced iPhoto.

Apple goes bigger with iPhone 6

The iPhone debuted with a 3.5-inch screen. Apple upped that to 4-inches with the iPhone 5. Meanwhile, the Android ecosystem was all-in on phones featuring screens 5-inches and larger; Samsung pushed ‘phablets’ into the mainstream.

Apple finally joined the big phone frenzy in September 2014 with the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. Sporting a new curved glass and aluminium chassis, the iPhone 6 had a 4.7-inch display and the iPhone 6 Plus was even larger at 5.5-inches. The front face design was basically an enlarged version of what everyone was used to which meant big forehead and chin front bezels surrounded the big screens. 

The other big feature of the iPhone 6 was Apple Pay. After getting the world comfortable with unlocking their phones using their fingerprints, Apple capitalized on its industry-leading biometrics system with support for contactless payments through Apple Pay. iPhone users could simply add their cards during device setup, and then immediately start buying things in one tap with Touch ID for authentication. Despite Android manufacturers offering various forms of NFC payments for some time prior, the standardized platform integration and simplicity of Apple Pay quickly made it the world’s #1 contactless payment method.

The pent-up demand for an iPhone with a larger screen — and a comprehensive China rollout — made the iPhone 6 series the most successful iPhones ever. Apple sold more than 10 million units in the opening weekend alone.

The Apple Watch unveiled

By 2014, investors and the tech community were anxious to see what Apple could do next. The idea that Apple was ‘doomed’ after the passing of Jobs still hung in the air, as the company had not broken into a new product category. Critics would repeatedly question whether Apple could keep innovating and defining new markets. Rumors about an Apple TV set and an iWatch project were raging, but Apple had not come through with the goods.

The pressure on the company was so intense that Tim Cook resorted to publicly acknowledging the forthcoming product pipelines, a rare move for the secretive company. In several earnings calls, Cook promised that Apple would enter a new product category in 2014.

That promise was met in September 2014. Apple announced the Apple Watch. Apple emphasized how the watch would introduce people to new ways to communicate, help people with health and fitness, and triage incoming notifications from their phone whilst staying ‘in the moment’. After years of speculation about exactly what an Apple wearable would be, the Apple Watch looked … like a watch. A watch with a rectangular face, and crown that could be rotated to scroll through lists on the screen. Apple developed a special vibration motor, the Taptic Engine, to allow the watch to inaudibly prompt users when new notifications came in. The back of the watch featured an Apple-developed heart rate sensor, which would help the watch compute calorie burn.

One of the biggest moves Apple made with the first Watch was to release three distinct collections with an assortment of bands. The company recognized that its usual strategy of releasing just one product, maybe with a couple of color options, would not be enough for something as personal as technology that is worn. The Apple Watch range meant users had the flexibility to express individual style and taste. Apple also tried breaking into the fashion world with the Apple Watch Edition, made of 24-caret gold.

Apple Watch was released in April 2015. The response were mixed. The first-generation Watch was pretty slow, and the hierarchy of the operating system was confusing to grok. Some reviewers thought the smartwatch as a concept was a wholly pointless. Generally, the first-generation Watch was taken as a good 1.0 but with obvious room to grow. Over time, Apple refined watchOS and added critical hardware features like GPS, waterproofing and cellular, helping to make the watch more useful as an independent device when the phone wasn’t around. 

Apple has never released official sales figures for the Apple Watch, a practice it would later adopt across all of its products, but the product was clearly a hit — even if took a couple of goes to focus on what was truly compelling about a smart device strapped to your wrist. 

The solid gold watch was an outright failure — with prices starting at $10,000 and going as high as $17,000 — and Apple retreated from the fashion sphere a bit. It has continued to contribute with innovative new styles of watch band and experimenting with less-expensive-but-still-premium case materials like ceramic and titanium.

 

2015

The (one port) MacBook

In spring 2015, Apple introduced the MacBook. In the announcement, Schiller described it as the ‘future of notebooks’. Thinner and lighter than anything Apple had made before, the 12-inch MacBook remains the smallest and most portable Apple laptop. 

Although Apple never really said it explicitly, this was meant to be the replacement for the MacBook Air. However, the 12-inch MacBook was met with a muted reception. Not only was the 12-inch an expensive product — far too pricey for the budget-sensitive customers that were buying the Air, in order to achieve the sleekness and aesthetic elegance, Apple had to make two significant compromises. 

Firstly, it only had one port. This was the first MacBook to feature USB-C which meant the port could handle all sorts of tasks from charging the machine to I/O and display output. This meant Apple could finally ship a functional computer with only one port, and they did — sacrificing innovations like MagSafe in order to funnel everything through the single USB-C connector. Although the port was capable of being multi-functional, the single port was inconvenient. If you wanted to plug in a camera and charge your laptop at the same time, you really couldn’t. Or at least, you would need to buy a special dongle. Realistically, you needed to buy USB-C adapters, dongles and accessories for almost any task … and in 2015 the USB-C ecosystem was much less developed than it is today.

Secondly, the keyboard. This is the machine that introduced the butterfly keyboard to the MacBook line. Over time, reliability would become a negative factor but right out of the gate people complained about how the keyboard felt. The butterfly keyboard’s 0.5mm key travel was unsatisfying to most people who used it. 

The other component Apple had to change for the sake of thinness was the trackpad. However, this one was an undoubted success. The space for the trackpad in the MacBook was so tight that the component couldn’t actually physically move. Instead, Apple added Force Touch sensors and a Taptic Engine (first seen in the Apple Watch) to simulate the feeling of a real trackpad click. A side-benefit of this design was that it was now possible to evenly click across the entire trackpad surface; older Mac trackpads had to tilt forwards to click, which gave them an uneven ‘diving board’ feel. Whereas Apple has distanced itself from the butterfly keyboard and the drastic one-port idea for its modern laptops in 2019, the Force Touch trackpad has cemented itself as one of the best parts of Apple’s portables.

Jony Ive named Chief Design Officer

On the 25th May 2015, Apple announced a shakeup of its design leadership teams. The headline: Jony Ive was being promoted to a new position, ‘Chief Design Officer’. In a memo to employees, Cook said that Ive would remain in charge of all Apple design, but would hand off ‘day-to-day managerial responsibilities’ to Richard Howarth and Alan Dye, who became VP Industrial Design and VP User Interface Design respectively.

The subtext of the promotion was that Ive was taking a step back. Whether he was getting ready to retire was up for debate. We saw Ive’s interests mainly focus on the new campus (to be named Apple Park) and Apple’s revamp of retail store architecture. However, Dye and Howarth never really came into the public zeitgeist. Dye’s and Howarth’s faces appeared on the Apple leadership page as named vice presidents, but Ive remained the face of Apple design and he continued to be the star celebrity in the videos for new Apple product releases.

Even stranger, in late 2017, Apple announced that Jony Ive had resumed day-to-day management responsibilities as leader of design at Apple. Dye and Howarth were summarily taken off the leadership page. People that saw 2015 as signs of retirement were taken back at Ive’s return to his old role. He had seemingly had a change of heart. But as we know now, this arrangement only continued for two years before Apple abruptly announced Jony Ive was leaving Apple to set up his own independent design firm, LoveFrom. Alongside his resignation, Ive said LoveFrom would have Apple as a primary client but it remains to be seen what, if anything, comes out of the long-distance partnership.

The 12.9-inch iPad Pro

The iPad Pro was announced as part of the 2015 September iPhone event but it didn’t ship until that November. This was Apple’s opportunity to answer the critics who pigeonholed the iPad as a product only for consumption. 

The combination of 12.9-inch screen, iOS 9 productivity features (like two-apps-at-a-time multitasking), and higher starting price (2015 iPad Pro started at $799 with 32 GB storage) tried to seriously propel Apple’s tablet efforts as a replacement for a laptop, at least in the arena of the MacBook Air. The new Smart Keyboard cover accessory addressed typing needs. Apple began directly comparing the CPU power found inside the iPad to the computer world: Apple said “the A9X chip rivals most portable PCs in performance”.

The iPad Pro was a great iPad but the addition of a massive screen and side-by-side app multitasking wasn’t enough of a leap to really make it amenable for most people’s productivity needs. Reviewers bemoaned the lack of multiple user accounts in iOS, the lack of a true filesystem for arranging complicated projects and incompatibilities with PC accessories like USB thumb drives or cameras.

Much of the success of the iPad Pro was found through the Apple Pencil, the stylus that Apple launched at the same time. The Apple Pencil could apply digital ink to the screen with pixel-level precision, as well as enable virtual brushes to react to changes in force and tilt. Drawing and digital art apps were already an established category in the App Store, and the Apple Pencil pushed what was possible even further. 

That being said, the Pencil was criticized for being too expensive, sold for $99 each. It also wasn’t clear where you were supposed to store the Pencil when not in use, and many people laughed at the primitive charging method: stick the Pencil straight into the Lightning port. Apple would address most of these concerns with the second-generation Pencil in 2018, although complaints about the accessory being pricey clearly fell on deaf ears. In fact, the second-generation Pencil was even more expensive at $129.

 

2016

The cheaper and smaller iPhone SE

Through 2015 and 2016, Apple’s premier product — the iPhone — was beginning to show signs of weakness. Sales growth in iPhone was slowing as Apple ran out of new places to sell it. In April 2016, Apple reported its first quarterly revenue decline in 13 years. 

Whilst Apple would never openly admit it, the iPhone SE was seen by analysts as a way for Apple to grab marketshare in lower-end segments that it had not really competed in before. The iPhone SE came out at the end of March 2016 with a clear goal: make a good iPhone for less money. Apple essentially took the body of an iPhone 5s, removed the premium chamfered metal edge for an all-aluminium exterior but swapped the innards for modern components. The iPhone SE featured the same A9 chip and 12-megapixel rear camera as the just-released iPhone 6s. And most importantly, it cost just $399 unsubsidized. 

The popularity of the iPhone SE at launch surprised Apple, and supply was constrained for a few months after it debuted. The iPhone SE developed somewhat of a cult following as it was the last iPhone that was truly small in the hand. In the years after its launch, Apple reduced the price a couple of times but never upgraded the SE’s internal — Apple’s design aims were set on price rather than form factor. The iPhone SE was discontinued in September 2018, but there are rumors that Apple will follow the same SE strategy again in 2020 by releasing a cheaper iPhone 8 with modern processor internals. It remains to be seen whether Apple will revive the SE brand, or if that was truly a Special Edition one-off.

Modern App Store subscription policies

Ahead of the actual WWDC conference, Apple announced sweeping policy changes for the App Store after Phil Schiller took over the division at the end of 2015. Apple announced that app review times would drop from 5-7 days to under 24 hours in most cases, addressing a particular pain point that benefited all developers. The announcement of App Store Search Ads was met with less enthusiasm; app makers could bid on keywords to show their apps at the top of search results.

However, the biggest news was an overhaul to app subscriptions. Apple opened up subscription in-app purchases to all categories of apps, when it was previously limited to news and magazine apps. It also increased the revenue share to developers to incentives more apps to switch to a subscription business model. All purchases would start at the same 70/30 revenue split but the new terms meant that if an app developer could retain a customer for more than a year, Apple would reduce its commission to 15%.

These changes brought about a phenomenon in how developers monetised their applications. Nowadays, almost all high-profile premium apps have switched to recurring revenue subscription payment models.

iPhone 7 and the attack on the headphone jack

In an age when all of the iPhone’s flagship Android competitors were on a quest to minimize bezels, Apple came out with the iPhone 7 … with the same body design as the iPhone 6s and the iPhone 6 before it. Apple gave the phone a water resistance rating for the first time, but the biggest improvement was exclusive to the Plus model: the addition of a second lens for the rear camera.

The second camera was a telephoto lens, which allowed Apple to add 2x optical zoom to the iPhone. A new UI in the Camera app let users smoothly switch between the two cameras. Moreover, the two lenses enabled Portrait mode. The iPhone analyzed the parallax between the rear cameras to compute a disparity depth map, allowing it to separate foreground from background and add the fake bokeh effect. Portrait mode was not available with the phone at launch though; it was added a month later in a software update.

The iPhone 7 was a relatively straightforward upgrade over its predecessor; new chip, new camera, and a new piano gloss Jet Black case finish (that looked stunning out of the box but was prone to becoming covered in micro-abrasions). That is, except for one detail: Apple removed the headphone jack.

The removal of the headphone jack caused an uproar, not least because Apple gave little motivation for the port’s removal. The bottom of the iPhone was simply blank where the headphone jack should be, for a generation in which the exterior design of the phone remained otherwise identical. Apple’s argument was the port was old analog technology and it was time for it to be replaced by wireless audio options. To help the transition along, Apple bundled a 3.5mm to Lightning dongle along with the phone in the box, which it still sells on the Apple Store for $9. A lot was written that year about how Apple was locking down its devices and forcing its user base to buy proprietary dongles. Regardless, Apple has stuck to the ‘courage’ of its convictions to this day, and most other phone manufacturers have also dropped the 3.5mm jack from their products.

What helped diminish the 3.5mm’s jack importance was the other product that Apple introduced alongside the iPhone 7: AirPods. Apple called it the future of headphones, cynics called it another way to give Apple money.

Ignoring the debates about proprietary ecosystems, AirPods were simply incredible from the day they came out. (They were initially billed to drop in October, but Apple ended up delaying them until mid-December). AirPods were simply better than the status quo Bluetooth earbuds of the time; truly no wires, seamless pairing and a convenient charging case that provided up to 24 hours of music playback whilst also being small enough to carry in your pocket.

Obviously, we all know now with the hindsight of time that AirPods have been one of Apple’s most successful product releases of the entire decade. But what’s interesting is that if you go back and watch the September 2016 iPhone event, Apple’s introduction of AirPods is way more understated than you might imagine. Apple thought they were good, of course, but they were clearly surprised by the impending phenomenon that they would become. AirPods were supply constrained for almost two years after they came out, and now the AirPods Pro are show similar levels of high demand.

15-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar

In October 2016, Apple unveiled a new generation of MacBook Pro, a product that what would become a notable low point in Apple’s history of pro notebooks. The 15-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar adopted many of the same design principles as the 12-inch MacBook — fewer ports and compromised keyboard for the sake of thinness — and summarily incurred much of the same backlash. 

However, the repercussions of rolling out these changes to the MacBook Pro were amplified. The leading job-to-be-done of the 12-inch MacBook was to be portable and small, so any compromises that supported that end result were at least understandable. The MacBook Pro is meant for professionals to get work done, so changes that made the computer worse to use, like the reduced travel of the new keyboard, that only served to make the product thinner made much less sense.

The big new feature of this machine, the Touch Bar, was also not an example of Apple batting out of the park. Although the Touch Bar was cool, it was not very practical or useful. It was at most, okay, but the cost of its addition was losing a physical Escape key and a row of function keys. Apple has said that developers are its biggest professional market and developers probably use the Escape key more than anyone else.

The problems of the MacBook Pro were further amplified when the unreliability of the butterfly keyboard became common knowledge. Even if you liked the low-travel feel, you would be infuriated by stuck keys and repeated character inputs.

The 15-inch MacBook Pro was the straw that broke the camel’s back, as far as Apple’s alignment with the professional market. It would begin to rectify the relationship and appeal of its pro products in 2017 but a ‘truly great’ MacBook Pro would not be available for another three years.

 

2017

Apple versus Qualcomm

After finally resolving and/or settling the smartphone patent suits that originated from 2011, it didn’t take long to initiate another huge court battle. This time, the target was Qualcomm. In January, Apple filed a $1 billion lawsuit against Qualcomm. 

Debates over Qualcomm’s treatment over its standard essential patents had been brewing for some time. Throughout the early 2010s, Apple and Qualcomm had an exclusive supply arrangement for the iPhone. Cracks in the relationship started to show in 2016; Apple shipped two variants of the iPhone 7, some with Qualcomm modems and some with Intel modems. In the suit, Apple said that ‘Qualcomm charges at least five times more than all other cellular patent licensors combined’. For its part, Qualcomm said the claims were meritless.

Although it took a little over two years for the case go to trial, the intervening period was not pretty. Apple and Qualcomm took their disagreements to courts all over the world. In one particular instance, Qualcomm managed to get an injunction on iPhone sales in China — based on infringement of patents wholly unrelated to cellular modems. Simultaneously, Apple dropped Qualcomm entirely from the iPhone model, relying exclusively on Intel. This was in spite of the fact that the quality and performance of Intel modems were lagging behind what Qualcomm could offer.

The companies finally faced each other at trial on the week of 15th April 2019. The Monday court proceedings were dedicated to admin and jury selection. On the second day, as the company’s opening arguments were being read, Apple and Qualcomm announced that they had reached a settlement. The statement said the agreement included a “payment from Apple to Qualcomm” and a multi-year supply agreement. The implication of the statement’s wording was that Apple caved but it was effectively irrelevant to the merits of the case. Time had forced Apple’s hand.

With Qualcomm in dispute, Apple had all of its eggs in the Intel basket. All reports pointed to Intel’s 5G modem development being either behind schedule, exhibiting poor performance, or both. The lead times of hardware being what they are, Apple had to act if they wanted to get a 5G-capable iPhone available in 2020. So, the settlement was reached. Some courts are still investigating Qualcomm’s practices. Behind the scenes, Apple is working on its own in-house modems for future iPhones but these are unlikely to be ready until 2022 at the earliest.

Apple Park is official

Plans for a new campus were announced by Steve Jobs at a Cupertino council meeting in 2011, just weeks before he would step down as CEO. In February of 2017, Apple announced that its new campus was finally approaching completion. The campus would be named Apple Park and the underground theatre was dedicated to Steve Jobs. 

The only area welcome to the general public, the Visitor Center, opened at the end of 2017 along with the first employees moving in. 

Apple Park was seen as the place where Ive had dedicated most of his creative energy. The making of the building was managed between a joint collaboration of Apple’s team and Foster and Partners. The campus featured custom design in basically every part of it; staircases with banisters that were an integrated part of the wall, label-less elevator buttons, custom desks and not a bare cable or wiring box in sight. Many of the same architectural elements were shared with Apple’s retail stores. 

Apple inducted the site by hosting the September 2017 iPhone keynote in the Steve Jobs Theater, although the site still looked a bit like a desert as the mass of newly-planted trees and greenery were not yet fully grown. Before Apple Park opened, many assumed that the Theater would become Apple’s exclusive venue for product events from then on. That turned out not to be the case. Apple has hosted every iPhone keynote there since 2017, but it has still relied on other locations for most of its other events — for variety, if nothing else. So far, the only non-September event held at Apple Park was the 2019 March services event.

Apple begins to repair the pro customer relationship

One thing not mentioned in this timeline is the 2013 Mac Pro, or the trashcan Mac Pro. The trashcan Mac Pro was a beautiful machine, with an innovative design, but the choices made were inherently incompatible with what pro customers wanted. The machine was not user-expandable and seemingly not Apple-expandable either, as the company did not update it with new internals — ever. The combination of Mac Pro failure and the 2016 MacBook Pro meant that the disconnect between Mac users and Apple had reached a fever pitch.

Apple held a private roundtable with several journalists in the spring of 2017. Without explicitly saying it, Apple essentially admitted that it had took its eye off the ball. Apple promised high-end configurations of the iMac were coming later in 2017, as well as a commitment to create a new modular Mac Pro and pro external display. Apple explained that they hit a ‘thermal corner’ with the trashcan’s design and the new Mac Pro would be architected for high-end high-throughput use cases with the capability to be refreshed with regular improvements.

It would take some time for the fruits of this renewed work to be ready to ship. But the roundtable achieved its job, community sentiment surrounding Apple’s pro products became much more optimistic. Beyond any particular product promise, Apple told the room that it had set up a pro workflow team, a group of creative professionals that Apple would work closely with to understand real-world needs of the professional market. Even though the Apple executives at the meeting had not teased any changes to the MacBook Pro, the community came away generally confident that it was ‘message received’.

At the WWDC keynote a few months later, Apple announced sweeping CPU and GPU upgrades for its entire line of products and previewed the iMac Pro, a reworking of the iMac chassis that could support highly multi-core Xeon workstation CPUs. The iMac Pro launched in the last few days of December 2017, and became an instant hit amongst the pro community. Apple had succeeded in restoring the faith, now everyone had to wait and see what the output would be across Apple’s entire pro Mac lineup.

The iPhone X and replacing the home button

The drumroll for a bezel-less iPhone had been building. The iPhone’s forehead and chin design was getting very long in the tooth. Whilst the iPhone looked almost identical for three generations, the Android cohort had been slowly slimming bezels with each successive product. It was time for Apple to radically rethink the core of the iPhone experience.

Rumors about a full-screen iPhone picked up steam starting in late 2016. Initially, it was speculated that Apple would be able to integrate Touch ID and the front-facing under the screen, and render a virtual home button on the display, to make for a completely bezel-less front face. The rumor mill began honing in on the truth and by the spring, the ‘iPhone 8’ (as it was referred to at the time) was a known quantity.

It would be an iPhone with a rounded OLED screen, stretching into every corner of the chassis with a top cutout to house the camera hardware … and the IR sensors for 3D face-recognition. Apple announced the phone in September, with the tagline ‘say hello to the future’. The iPhone X was sold for $999, featuring a full-screen OLED display, 4K video recording, the latest A11 chip and Face ID biometrics. At the usual price points, Apple simultaneously released the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus which had the same specs aside from the design and screen quality.

There was a lot of questions about how well Apple would be able to replace the physical home button of the iPhone, a defining element of the device since the very first model. On reflection, Apple excelled with the gestural system it came up with. Unquestionably, this is my personal pick of the entire decade: the gestural navigation system alone. Apple nailed it. They came up with a responsive, natural and unimposing control system for their most important product, and perfected it first time. The iPhone X gestures still feel modern and compelling, two years on. I think the magic is in how everything works with everything else; you can start swiping up to go home and switch partway through to opening the app switcher. Nothing is rigid. Want to swipe laterally on the home indicator to go back to a previously open app? You can, but you can also roughly arch your finger and the phone just understands what you mean — effortlessly.

Face ID was also a hit. It had weak spots, bright sunlight and polarized sunglasses for instance, but so Touch ID, like when wearing gloves or just having wet fingers. Face ID was slower than the second-generation Touch ID-based unlock if you timed it, but nowhere near enough to be an inconvenience. And being able to just glance at your phone to read notifications — no button press or interaction required — was a dream. I still hit occasions where I am annoyed that I cannot unlock my iPhone when it is laying flat on the table but if I had a straight choice between having Face ID and Touch ID, I’d pick Face ID every time.

Despite its $1000 starting price, the iPhone X immediately became the best-selling model of that generation. And the fundamentals of the iPhone X will be the fundamentals of all iPhones for years to come.

(Apple announced the AirPower wireless charging mat, alongside the iPhone X, an ambitious charging mat that could wireless charge three devices at the same time on the same pad. It fit the vision of the phone of the future, but it was unfortunately the part of the vision that was not able to be realized. Apple left the product in limbo for more than a year, before cancelling it completely in March 2019. The AirPower fiasco is an embarrassing black mark on Apple’s product development and logistics process.)

#BatteryGate

At the very end of the year, Apple faced its biggest public scandal in years. People started noticing discrepancies in how their iPhone models were scoring on tests like Geekbench. An older phone, like the iPhone 6, would only hit scores of 800 when it would have achieved close to double that number when new out of the box. Posters on Reddit realized that swapping their batteries would make the phones act like new again.

Apple had actually implemented this behavior in iOS 10.2.1 earlier that year but the release notes did not clearly explain the consequences of what it was doing. When the news stories blew up, it felt like Apple had deceived people. The long-running conspiracy theory that Apple intentionally slowed down older phones was partially validated. 

As the complaints bubbled in the tech community, Apple told TechCrunch that it was throttling phones as their batteries age to prevent unexpected shutdowns. If the phone deemed its battery to have degraded to the point where it would not be able to respond to peak power demands, then it throttled down its maximum CPU speeds to prevent the phone from becoming overloaded in future and turning itself off.

Initially, Apple did not expound further than a one-paragraph statement to TechCrunch. The company did not comment on how it handled the rollout of the update at all. The nuances of the problem were not well explained and most people interpreted Apple’s explanation as directly confirming their suspicions; Apple slowed down old iPhones on purpose. At this point, the narrative took held and made national news headlines.

A week later, Apple had to release a public apology for the mess and confusion it had caused. It released a long article explaining the intricacies of the situation. To quell the uproar, Apple reduced the price of battery replacements at the Apple Store to $29 for the whole of 2018, and committed to making the throttling process more transparent in a forthcoming software update. iOS 11.3 let people see their estimated battery capacity, whether their phone was currently exhibiting peak performance, and a toggle to opt-in to disable the throttling and accept the consequences of possible unexpected shutdowns.

Since BatteryGate flared up, Apple has further improved the behavior of the performance management system in iOS. Rather than permanently throttling the device, newer iPhones can respond more dynamically to peak power needs on demand. Class-action lawsuits about the issues of BatteryGate are still making their way through the courts; Apple has said in company filings that it has set aside money to pay for any litigation proceedings, so it must at least believe there is some chance of further repercussions to come.

 

2018

The premium smart speaker, the HomePod 

Originally intended to debut in the fall of 2017 for the holiday season, the HomePod was finally made available in February 2018. The HomePod was Apple’s entrance into the burgeoning smart speaker market. Pitched as the best of Echo and the best of Sonos, the HomePod housed seven internal tweets and a large subwoofer to provide truly impressive sound out of a relatively small unit. The device could only natively play content from Apple Music or purchased from the iTunes Store, and did not act like a standard Bluetooth speaker. Only Apple devices could AirPlay music to it.

The device was priced at $349. Amazon and Google have broke into the home mostly with more capable voice assistants packaged into devices that cost under $100, often under $50. Apple had gone for the high-end. All analyst reports point to the HomePod being a slow seller, perhaps it is the most popular >$300 smart speaker … but that market segment is small.

Another stumbling block for the HomePod was that it launched without AirPlay 2. AirPlay 2 enabled stereo pairing and multi-room speaker arrangements. Those features were made available with iOS 11.4 on May 28th, three months later. Apple gradually added new capabilities through software updates, like the ability to make phone calls and set up calendar events. It gained the ability to set multiple timers at the end of 2018, and Apple added basic multi-user features in November 2019. However, the HomePod software still has a long way to go. 

Even if Siri and the HomePod OS was perfect, the product is probably still too expensive to be a mass market success. In a rare move, Apple actually dropped the price of the HomePod from $349 to $299, without introducing a new generation. There are rumors that Apple will launch a cheaper ‘HomePod mini’ device in 2020.

iOS 12 performance focus

In addition to the ongoing murmurs that Apple intentionally slowed older phones down, whispers that had been rejuvenated thanks to the BatteryGate scandal, it was also simply true that the efficiency and optimization of the iOS operating system had worsened gradually over time. iOS 11 was particularly bad with both bugginess and performance, and was collectively labelled by the community as a bad release — with particularly poor performance on older iPhones and iPads.

To address these concerns, Apple’s software division dramatically switched up their plans for that year’s OS. In a well-leaked internal meeting, Craig Federighi announced that Apple would delay several key iOS features until the following year. Those teams would be reassigned to work on improving iOS stability and performance. 

Apple announced this initiative at WWDC in June 2018. iOS 12 was billed as a release with performance as a central tenet. Apple promised dramatic improvements across the system, including 2x faster app launch under load, up to 70% faster Camera loading, and 1.5x faster presentations of the keyboard.

When iOS 12 shipped that September, Apple’s claims were backed up in the real world. Performance improvements were readily noticeable, particularly on older models like iPhone 6 but even owners of the newest iPhone X saw speedups. Few people cared that iOS 12 was lighter on new features.

Unfortunately, a lot of the goodwill Apple generated with the iOS 12 release has been evaporated in the light of this year’s OS cycle. iOS 13, macOS Catalina and watchOS 6 touted plenty of new features but debuted with varying degrees of bugginess and instability. Apple is reportedly changing up the way it develops internal builds of iOS, starting with iOS 14, in another attempt to nail down the output quality of its major operating system releases.

Apple Watch leaps forward with Series 4

Now that the iPhone X was established, it was time for Apple to start spreading the bezel-less beauty across its entire product line. The Apple Watch Series 4 dramatically reduced the size of the on-screen bezel whilst making the screen bigger. The sizes of the Watch did increase slightly, from 38mm and 42mm to 40mm and 44mm (Apple measures the Watch in terms of case height, in accordance with the watch world). More than just making the bezels thinner, the Watch’s screen was now rounded to trace the rounded corners of the body — like the iPhone X. This was a huge upgrade over the screen of the first three watches, which looked like a rectangular screen floating in the middle of a rounded square island bezel.

watchOS was updated to take advantage of the new screen dimensions, including denser watch faces with a flurry of data-rich complications. It made the best smartwatch feel smarter. The Series 4 also brought with it a new crown with haptic feedback, and two significant health features.

Firstly, Apple upgraded the accelerometers in the Watch to be able to detect falls. If the watch detected a fall, it could automatically enable SOS mode and call for help if the wearer remained unconscious for one minute. Secondly, Apple redesigned the rear heart rate sensor housing to include an electrocardiogram. Apple got approval from the FDA to be the first consumer product on the market to be able to take ECGs without needing the user to go to a doctor. The watch can tell the wearer if their heart rhythm shows signs of atrial fibrillation. When the Series 4 was announced, it wasn’t clear how long it would take for Apple to get approval for international regulatory bodies but the company moved fast and managed to cover about 40 countries by the spring.

What’s interesting about the smartwatch market is that Apple has essentially zero competition. Meanwhile, Apple keeps delivering significant hardware and software updates annually. With the 2019 hardware refresh, Apple added an always-on screen design to the Series 4 design — finally making the watch act like a watch.

The beautiful 2018 iPad Pro

The iPhone X treatment also came to the iPad. Due to the relative size of the screens, Apple slimmed the iPad bezels on all four sides uniformly so that they were as thick as the TrueDepth sensor housing was big, removing the need for a notch. For software, they had already solved it with the iPhone X interface. The home indicator based gestural system scaled to the iPad beautifully. The iPad finally become the epitomic ideal of what a tablet is; one giant (and high frame rate) touchscreen. 

What was also interesting about the hardware is that Face ID could work in any orientation, whereas the iPhone is still limited to portrait only. However, it turned out the placement of the Face ID cameras on the iPad was a little problematic. Like the phone, the iPad’s TrueDepth sensors sit in the top bezel when held in portrait but that means when the iPad is held in landscape, the hands/arms of the user often block the cameras from being able to see anything. Critics want Apple to accept that the modern iPad is a predominantly landscape experience, and change the hardware to suit.

Answering the complaints about the first iPad Pro in regards to the Apple Pencil, Apple introduced a second-generation Apple Pencil that was designed from the beginning with the new iPad Pro in mind. It magnetically attached to the side of the device for safekeeping and charging. And whilst they didn’t add an active erase on the other end of the stylus, the Apple Pencil added an accelerometer to detect a double-tap gesture to quickly switch tools in drawing apps.

The other problem that hampered the 2018 iPad Pro’s reviews was the software. As iPad-specific features planned for iOS 12 had been pushed back to iOS 13 because of the focus on performance, the capability of the iPad’s OS had not advanced much past what reviewers critiqued with the first iPad Pro from 2015. Similarly when iPadOS was ready to go a year later, Apple did not have new iPad Pro hardware to go along with it.

 

2019

Apple misses its earnings guidance

On January 2nd, Tim Cook published a public letter that revealed Apple would be lowering its earnings guidance for the just gone 2018 holiday quarter. The company had not failed to meet guidance since 2003, well before the iPhone era. Apple blamed macroeconomic weakness leading to lower iPhone sales, particularly concentrated on China.

As a financial event, this would just be an amusing statistic of history but of course this result had ramifications on Apple’s product plans. Apple doubled down on Services initiatives as a way to show investors underlying long-term growth potential in its business.

In the letter, Cook said Apple was going to make it easier for customers to trade in a phone at Apple Stores and finance the purchase over time. In December, Apple plastered banners on its website and retail stores advertising the iPhone XR for $449, with the asterisk that the price included the trade-in value of an iPhone 7 Plus. The boosted trade-in promo offer was initially advertised as a ‘limited time’ offer, but it kept getting extended.

As a direct consequence of the poor earnings, Apple reworked the buying process for iPhones. It began advertising monthly prices for buying an iPhone with two-year payment plans, not just the full ticket price. Apple expanded the availability of its trade-in programs to more markets, including adding ways to trade-in devices online. Apple also announced that it would take ‘pricing action’ in select markets where foreign currency had raised the price of the iPhone. This essentially saw Apple cut into its own margins in order to offset the currency fluctuations of the US Dollar. Notably, Apple cut the entry price of the next iPhone flagship by $50 worldwide, after several years where the price had only creeped upwards.

The March services event

In March, Apple held a special event to talk about its latest Services announcements. To highlight its importance to the company, Apple held the event on campus, making it the first non-iPhone event to take place at Apple Park. Apple also invited top Hollywood names to watch the event unfold.

The announcements comprised Apple News+, Apple Arcade, Apple Card, and Apple TV+. Going into the event, people had expected a presentation focused on Apple’s original content TV plans. However, the TV portion of the event was somewhat muted. Apple wasn’t ready to announce firm information on availability and pricing, nor did it actually show a trailer for a single show. Instead, celebrities like Jennifer Aniston, Steven Spielberg, and Kumail Nanjiani got up on stage to describe the projects they had in development. Apple closed with an appearance from Oprah, who announced several documentaries and the news that the Oprah Book Club coming to Apple TV+.

The event was said to bristle Hollywood agents, many of whom whisked their talent to Cupertino only for them to sit in the audience and watch, with Apple not even mentioning their shows on stage. The initial response from pundits was that this was the first sign that Apple did not understand the world of TV, and that Apple TV+ was a failure. Others were confused about how Apple could launch a subscription streaming service with only a slim lineup of originals and no back catalog; why would anyone want to pay for it?

It is early days for Apple TV+ but the outlook is certainly more optimistic today than it was in March. Persistent rumors that Apple was interfering and sanitizing the content turned out not to be true at all. The initial critical response to Apple’s launch slate of shows was not great, but audience reactions have been generally positive. The low price of $4.99 and the lengthy one-year free trial has helped Apple TV+’s launch; the muted response from the March event probably would have been very different if Apple had announced the pricing terms then. Apple has leaned into the idea of it being the only ‘all originals’ streaming service. The focus now is how quickly Apple can expand its library and whether users will actually start paying when the millions of free trials expire.

Apple Arcade was a solid hit for Apple right out of the gate, offering a diverse range of brand new games. Apple Arcade has a clear reason to exist; it’s a counter to the swarm of freemium games that have dominated the App Store in recent years, most featuring ethically-questionable monetization models. Apple News+ was the opposite. Not only was the app experience poor out of the gate but it’s hard to see the appeal in paying for a stack of digital magazines and newspapers, where a majority of them are simply PDF scans of the physical publication and not optimized for the iPad and iPhone screens at all. Sources indicate that the Apple News+ contract allows partners to exit the service after a year if they are unhappy, so it will be interesting to see how the Apple News+ catalog changes on its first anniversary in March. 

It’s still unclear how many customers have signed up to Apple’s latest suite of content services; Apple certainly doesn’t volunteer figures. It is expected that Apple will bundle its services together at some point, presumably at a reduced combined cost, and probably add in other benefits like Apple-produced podcasts.

iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro

What’s funny about the iPhone 11 and the iPhone 11 Pro is that they are relatively boring unsurprising upgrades; better cameras, better battery life, and faster CPUs. However, in many ways, it feels like the 11 and 11 Pro was the culmination of Apple’s learnings from across the decade. 

The upgrades were obvious but of critical importance to customers: iPhone users crave better cameras and better battery life. With the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro, Apple gave it to them. The iPhone X and XS had also fallen behind leading competition like the Google Pixel in raw photo quality. As well as adding the ultra-wide lens, the better lenses and image processing in the 11 series has once again put the iPhone right back into contention for first place in the smartphone camera wars. The triangular triple-lens rear camera module design is still pretty ugly to look at though.

Apple also learnt from the missteps of the iPhone 5c and the marketing blunders of the iPhone XR. The iPhone 11 was pitched as the primary iPhone and offered most of the features of the higher end ‘pro’ branded options. It also reset iPhone pricing slightly, offering the flagship iPhone 11 for just $699. The iPhone 11 series delivered exactly what people were asking for, and nothing more. This constituted a worthy upgrade, and all signs pointing to the iPhone 11 being received extremely well in the market.

16-inch MacBook Pro and Mac Pro

Similarly, Apple closes out the decade with a denouement of the pro Mac saga. Just before the end of the year, Apple delivered the modular Mac Pro as promised, and the new 16-inch MacBook Pro.

The 16-inch MacBook Pro retreads common ground. Rather than trying anything too daring, Apple addressed the core complaints of what people were upset about. The butterfly keyboard was ditched for a slightly tweaked variation of the Magic Keyboard, the Touch Bar remained but Apple added back a physical Escape, and the company ensured that they gave the machine enough battery power and thermal envelope to make it useful for professionals to get their work done.

The new Mac Pro is eye-wateringly expensive machine but it certainly meets the demands of high-end pro customers. Lots of thermal headroom and lots of slots for future expansion. The case improves on the old cheese grater design, but it is not so drastic that it makes people doubt whether Apple will be able to support future CPUs and GPUs for years to come.

That’s not to say Apple ends the decade with no problems for the Mac line. It is a shame there isn’t a modular desktop Mac that slots between iMac and the 2019 Mac Pro. The new Mac Pro feels more geared to video and photo professionals than, say, developers. The foibles of the butterfly keyboard remain on most of the Mac laptops Apple still sells for the time being. 

What the Mac Pro and 16-inch MacBook Pro show is that Apple gets it, they know what to do, and they are on the right path. It shows they still are a company that can addresses the needs of mainstream consumers and professionals simultaneously, through a range of integrated devices that push the boundaries of technology. It shows that they care.

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