Apple Crushed 2020
The worst year in recent history might be the best for Apple history.
Yes, I’m an Apple fan, but I’m not easy to please. So trust me when I say: Apple crushed it in 2020.
For contrast, and as a sample of how scathing my usual judgement is: take 2014. That year:
- They muddied up the pristine brand by buying a company that made (and still makes some) shit expensive headphones, only for their streaming service and star power.
- They introduced the worst trend in iPhone design, that left us stuck with excessively wide and excessively tall iPhones for 6 years.
- They introduced the Watch in a keynote that was as self-indulgent as it was cringey. (With a cherry on top.)
- They introduced watchOS, which didn’t ship until 2015, but still: it was filled with organizational insecurity. The phone didn’t have apps on day 1, so in order to claim the Watch had apps on day 1, they built a crap SDK to build crap apps that never worked. Nobody knew what the Watch was supposed to do, so the system’s navigational paradigm was all over the place, as evidenced by the fact that the Watch ended up with two hardware buttons (and, essentially, two “home” states). They went so hard on the Watch-exclusive expressive communication features that they built a system-level comms layer, and made it the exclusive use for that secondary hardware button. (Some of those features would be cool to have now that other people actually have Watches to use them with, but alas, they’re super dead, because nobody used them at the time.)
And that’s just 2014. 2013 brought us the iPad 3, iOS 7, and you know what? It’s not use dwelling on these things, because they’ve learned all the lessons. Every single product that Apple didn’t get right at first on the first half of the 2010s is now either great or on track to being great.
What I really want to celebrate, though, is how many new things they did in 2020, and how they basically nailed all of them right out of the gate. Let’s take a look:
- First, of course, is their COVID response. They diverted not just production, but design and engineering resources to building and distributing PPE to front-line workers at scale. They added hand washing assistance to watchOS. They partnered up with Google (!) to share the standard they originally built for Find My to enable contact tracing around the world, with any smartphone. This is the definition of going above and beyond: not just tweaking your existing products and services to adjust for the new reality, but really putting the enormous weight of the company behind supporting safety at every level, from front-line healthcare, to government, to everyday personal hygiene.
- In the software design front, macOS 11 is beautiful. The biggest visual departure for the Mac since 10.0 is gorgeous, and I love it without reservations, which is weird.
- iOS 14 finally upgraded the home screen with App Library and new widgets, and what can I say? They friggin’ nailed it. (Except, you know, I wish widgets could be more interactive without opening the app. But still, I love them.)
- Apple silicon. I mean, just wow. I’m typing this on my M1 MacBook Air, and even a month in, it still feels like a dream. This thing packs even better Xcode performance than my i9 Pro, and it doesn’t even have a fan. Apple made traditional computing fun and exciting again.
- iPhone 12 mini. Sure, it’s 5G, who cares—we’re staying home until the next iPhone cycle anyway. But this mini phone is as powerful as any other from the lineup, and it’s delicious. Same logical resolution as the X/XS/11 Pro, in a much smaller and lighter package that actually fits my small hands. I can actually use my phone with one hand again! I haven’t loved a new iPhone this much since… the 4? 5? It’s been a long 8 years since then. (Also, MagSafe is kinda cool, but I will freak out if they remove the lightning port—wireless Xcode debugging is hit or miss, and my 12 mini refuses to work with it.)
- AirPods Max. I was gonna get Apple’s headphones anyway, you know? But these things blew me away. They’re beautifully designed (if you forget about the case), and they sound great. Spatial audio is on a whole other level, though. I was in complete shock when I played a compatible movie with the Maxes on. It’s not just like being at the movie theater, it’s better. Really outstanding hardware and software work there. 10/10. Great job.
- HomePod mini is by far the nicest thing Apple has ever sold for 99 dollars.
- App Tracking Transparency. Empowering people to truly own their digital identities is not easy or simple, and the whole industry is years behind here, but Apple remains at the forefront with the most impactful move they’ve done here so far. Web browsing tracking matters, but app tracking can be way more invasive, the profiles built can be way more detailed, and people are probably even less aware of it, so this is a great step towards control. Sign in with Apple also gets a mention by offering a very nice low-friction, high-privacy account experience across apps.
- On the Services front, Ted Lasso is great, Mini Motorways became the reason I’m considering paying for Arcade, Fitness+ is actually fun and has managed to get me sweating a few times, and can you believe everything has AirPlay now?
- Oh, I almost forgot about the new Solo Loop watch bands. So good! I didn’t expect a band to change how I use my Watch(es), but these definitely did. Putting it on is now as easy as putting on any stretchy bracelet or hair tie, and that friction reduction makes a world of difference. Putting on the watch used to feel like dressing up, kinda like a weekday thing, but now it’s so effortless that I wear it every day.
- One last thing: the online events. Enormous production value, fast-paced, and overall, so much fun. I don’t know how we go back to the plain old keynote from here, honestly.
I’m sure there’s more, but these are the all the things off the top of my head that I’ve loved about the company this outgoing year. These things would have all been spectacular on a regular year, and yet this year was anything but. On the hardest year ever, Apple delivered its best year in products and social impact so far. From my couch, I can only say: very, very well done, and thank you.
Looking forward to 2021!