The view that Apple lost its innovative edge with the sad loss of Steve Jobs has been one of the oft-repeated criticisms of the company in recent years. But this idea is based on an entirely mythological view of Apple as a company that was constantly launching ground-breaking new product categories.
The reality is a little more mundane. The Macintosh, a truly revolutionary computer, was launched in 1984. We had to wait 17 years for the next groundbreaking product: the iPod in 2001. We had to wait six years after that for the next major product category: the iPhone in 2007. And a further three years for the iPad in 2010. (If you wanted to push things a little, you could argue that the MacBook Air was also so revolutionary that it deserves to be included; if so, we’re up to five new product categories in 26 years.)
Note, too, that none of the product categories were invented by Apple. Xerox, of course, invented the graphical user interface for personal computers. There were MP3 players before the iPod; touchscreen smartphones before the iPhone; tablets before the iPad. What Apple did in each case was what the company does best: take something clunky and used only by techies, and turn it into a slick product that will appeal to the masses.
So no, Apple never has churned out revolutionary new products on an annual basis. If we’re going to assess its performance today, it has to be against a realistic background. Zac recently reminded us of Apple’s product timeline for 2015. Looking at this in the context of a company whose true history is occasionally taking a new product category and doing it better than anyone else – and in between times merely refining its existing product ranges – how did Apple do this year … ?
Firstly, of course, there was the Apple Watch. Ok, Apple announced the product in 2014, but it went on sale this year, so I’d argue it counts as a new product category in 2015. As with the Macintosh, iPod, iPhone and iPad, Apple looked at an existing invention – the smartwatch – and figured out how to do it better. Much better.
It was so successful in this that even I – a techie who normally needs little excuse to buy a new gadget, but couldn’t see the point in smartwatches – was assimilated. When we asked you to name the Apple Product of the Year, the Apple Watch was the clear winner, taking more than twice as many votes as the second-placed iPhone 6s/Plus.
Granted not all of you were sold – a recent poll showed that some 16% of owners had abandoned the device, and a further 13% are not wearing it daily – but there’s no question that the Watch is a successful product. Admittedly, Apple has declined to reveal sales numbers – stating only that sales are strong and growing – and analysts have had to make wild guesses, but it’s abundantly clear that Apple has sold more smartwatches than every other manufacturer put together. Way, way more.
One could debate the status of the iPad Pro – new product category, or just a ginormous iPad? I can see arguments on both sides. While technically it is just a larger iPad, you could equally well have argued that the iPad itself was just a larger iPod touch. Sometimes size matters.
Although I concluded that the iPad Pro wasn’t for me, I did not in any way dismiss the device. As I said at the time, it’s a great device for many people. Brilliant for artists and designers (you easily chose the Apple Pencil as Apple Peripheral of the Year). A great tool for corporate warriors. Very handy for musicians. A better choice than a laptop for those with relatively basic computing needs. And a fantastic personal entertainment machine.
Importantly, the iPad Pro – together with all those enterprise apps – is clearly going to take the enterprise market by storm.
So, new category or not, the iPad Pro will, I’m sure, prove to be a hugely valuable product for Apple, and one which could very well help the company turn around those flagging iPad sales.
Oh, and the new iPad mini brought it into line with the design and capabilities of the iPad Air 2. Not unexpected, of course, but still a worthwhile upgrade.
The 12-inch MacBook doesn’t qualify as a new product category – it’s just the latest refinement of the MacBook Air concept – but again, as product evolutions go, it’s an impressive one.
It hasn’t yet sold itself to me personally. I’m still very happy with my 11-inch MacBook Air, and appreciate the fact that this can drive my 27-inch display to provide a full desktop experience when needed.
But it takes the MacBook Air concept to the next level. Its power will of course increase, and I’m confident that support for external monitors will come. Once it’s a little more capable, I have no doubt that this is the machine that is set to replace the MacBook Air.
Admittedly, we didn’t see anything else exciting on the MacBook side. The Retina MacBook Pro got Force Touch, and a refreshed MacBook Air just got a Broadwell CPU and faster graphics. We’re going to have to wait until next year for more significant enhancements there.
On the desktop side, there were the new 4K and 5K Retina iMacs. Sure, evolution rather than revolution, but it was clear from the reviews that the 5K iMac was blowing people away. At a time when almost everyone else has given up on desktops, Apple is still there launching new products that continue to wow people.
Apple also didn’t forget desk-based customers when it came to peripherals, launching the Magic Keyboard, Magic Trackpad 2 and Magic Mouse 2. Again, nothing amazing (despite the names), but still keeping things fresh.
The Apple TV 4 got a more mixed reception. Many viewed it as effectively giving non-gamers a games console in their living-room for the first time, and one which will at least keep the kids amused. Siri was also welcomed by most. Others complained that it was inexplicable that a TV box launched in 2015 omitted 4K.
Finally, we have a to give a more than honorable mention to the iPhone 6s. 3D Touch expanded the capabilities of the user-interface, and the camera functionality got a big boost with Live Photos, 5MP FaceTime camera, 4K recording and 1080p slo-mo at 120fps – even if the boost from 8MP to 12MP was something of a mixed blessing.
LTE Advanced will also be appreciated once it is more widely supported. For an S-year, it’s an impressive release.
Apple cannot, of course, please all of the people all of the time. I still grumble about the disappearance of the 17-inch MacBook Pro, and still cling to the hope that the 12-inch MacBook could lead to new even-numbered sizes that at least sees a 16-inch MacBook Pro in my future.
And we’re all techies, so we’re of course always impatient for new toys. But viewed in a sensible historical context, I think we have to say that 2015 was an impressive year for Apple. Do you agree? Take our poll, and please share your reasons in the comments.
With the end of that year almost upon us, it only remains to say that I’ve had enormous fun writing these opinion pieces throughout the year, and have been very appreciative of the responses. I’ve very much enjoyed reading your comments, and look forward to doing so in 2016. Happy new year!