2013: The year Apple zeroed in on the holidays
December 30, 2013
Apple's 2013 was, as the old song goes, a very good year. But it was also an unusual year, as CEO Tim Cook saved all of his product announcements for the last seven months, with most of them lumped right before the holidays. Join Gizmag, as we take a look back at the tail-heavy year that was for Apple.
The long silence
For the first part of the year, we didn't hear much of anything at all out of Apple. No new version of Mac OS X in February, no new iPads in March or April, and no new iPhones in June or July. Up until June, the biggest news we got was a price drop for the Retina MacBook Pro in February. Headline-worthy? Sure. But far from the kind of news that keeps you on the edge of your seat.
That opened the door to one of the biggest public shellackings the company has seen in years. During the first few months of the year, it seemed like a day didn't go by that some analyst, investor, or talking head wasn't taking the opportunity to bash the company for its supposed lack of innovation. Since Tim Cook took over as CEO in 2011, the company has been refining and steadily improving its already-established ground – but hasn't broken any new ground. The backlash towards that came to a head early this year.
With Apple's stock dropping like a fly, the company was starting to look a little defenseless. It usually silences this kind of chatter by releasing well-received new products that sell like hotcakes. But with Santa Cook shifting all of Apple's biggest releases to the end of the year, the company's ability to control public reaction appeared to be slipping away.
It probably wasn't a coincidence, then, that right when the "no longer innovating" chatter was building to fever pitch, the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Bloomberg all suddenly got inside scoops about Apple's alleged plans to develop a smartwatch. The so-called iWatch didn't show up in 2013, but it seems to have now replaced the mythical iTV as the most hotly-anticipated (though completely unconfirmed) future Apple product. Companies use controlled leaks to frame the conversation all the time, and we wouldn't be surprised if that was the case here.
Flat design and a couple of new Macs
The silence ended at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference in June, as the company finally gave everyone some new products and software to talk about. At the top of the list was iOS 7, which marked the biggest cosmetic makeover iOS has seen since it released alongside the first iPhone in 2007. Its new Jony Ive-inspired look did away with the old skeuomorphic highlights, shadows, and felt card tables in favor of a flat, simple design. iOS 7 also included iTunes Radio: a Pandora clone that, while very solid, probably received more press than it warranted.
Also announced at WWDC was OS X Mavericks, Apple's latest version of its operating system for Macs. It was also the beneficiary of a flat-design makeover, while adding some iOS mainstays like Apple Maps and iBooks to its arsenal.
The only new hardware that Apple released in June was an updated MacBook Air. The 2013 model's biggest upgrade was a 4th-gen Intel "Haswell" processor, which helped to give it off-the-charts battery life. The MBA didn't get the Retina Display that many had been waiting for, but it did get a US$100 price drop from the 2012 model.
Though it didn't release until December, Apple also previewed its redesigned Mac Pro at the June WWDC event. The professional-level desktop features top-notch internal hardware and a unique new cylindrical design, with a hollow center that acts as a thermal cooling system. The new Mac Pro is a high-end product aimed at professional video editors and sound engineers, but Phil Schiller used the announcement to target a much wider audience, with his telling crack: "Can't innovate anymore, my ass."
iPhone 5s and the not-so-budget "budget iPhone"
Starting in September, Apple finally got down to business and gave the people what they wanted: some brand spankin' new iOS devices. Both the flagship iPhone 5s and colorful iPhone 5c echoed 2012's iPhone 5 (the 5s mimicking its outside, and the 5c its inside), but they still served as worthy S-series year updates.
The most surprising news was the iPhone 5s' jump to 64-bit processing with its A7 chip. While some of Apple's marketing language may have misled customers into thinking the 64-bit architecture was responsible for the 5s' immediate performance boosts, the shift does lay the groundwork for future iOS devices that have more than 4 GB of RAM. The 5s also sports an M7 "motion coprocessor," which lets compatible apps use the phone's motion sensor without draining its battery.
The other big piece of news was the iPhone 5s' Touch ID fingerprint sensor. Lying beneath the 5s' new sapphire-covered home button, it blends security and convenience about as seamlessly as possible.
The iPhone 5c, meanwhile, served as more ammunition for the critics that had been so vocal earlier in the year. The colorful budget iPhone was long rumored to be Apple's answer to the cheap Android phones that are dominating the low- and mid-range end of the market. But what Apple gave us instead was basically an iPhone 5 wrapped in a colorful plastic shell. The real icing on the cake: it only retailed for $100 cheaper than the 5s. Early signs suggest that the 5c is being handily outsold by the 5s, making it a far cry from the market-share grabber many analysts were asking for.
The September event also, as expected, marked the official public release of iOS 7. The update was well-received, and quickly became the fastest-adopted new iOS release in history, hitting a staggering 60 percent adoption rate just a week after its release.
Though it didn't warrant mention at the iPhone event, Apple snuck a late 2013 iMac out the door late in September. A mere spec bump, the new model added 4th-gen Intel Core Haswell processors to Apple's consumer-level desktop.
The mother lode
Apple most definitely saved the best for last this year, as the company's October event gave us the iPad Air and the long-awaited iPad mini with Retina Display. The iPad Air brought life back to the 9.7-in iPad, shaving 28 percent off the iPad 4's weight. The Retina iPad mini, meanwhile, moved to level ground with the larger model, becoming more or less the same tablet in a smaller form factor. We found the two new iPads to be big leaps forward from last year's models and easily the two best iPads to date – making a tough decision for holiday shoppers.
Apple's October event also saw the official release of OS X Mavericks, which became available to download the same day. Speaking of Macs, Apple also updated the MacBook Pro with Retina Display, bringing it up to speed with those Haswell processors, which also gave it up to nine hours of battery life. Apple also revisited the Mac Pro, reaffirming that it would launch "by the end of the year," with a $3,000 starting price (it ultimately launched on December 19).
Though it doesn't affect most of the world, one of Apple's biggest announcements of the year came on December 22. That's when the company announced that it finally inked a long-anticipated deal with China Mobile to bring the iPhone to the world's largest carrier. China Mobile-friendly versions of the iPhones 5s and 5c will go on sale January 17, 2014 in China Mobile's and Apple's retail stores. So the year that started with investor anxiety wrapped up with news that could potentially pad Apple's bottom line for years to come.
Moving forward ...
Though Apple's 2013 ended on a high note, we haven't likely heard the last of the concerns about Apple no longer blazing trails into new product categories. Though the company isn't likely to rush it out the door just to shut them up, we wouldn't bet against seeing that iWatch sometime in 2014. Perhaps Siri, Touch ID (or some other form of biometric sensors), and 24-7 fitness tracking will be its killer features?
An Apple smartwatch, though, brings up at least as many questions as it does answers. Will it be a smartphone replacement or a smartphone accessory like the smartwatches we've seen so far? Will it be enough to bring wearable computing into the mainstream? Or will tech buyers prefer even more intimate products like Google Glass? We may know soon enough.
We'll also have the standard iPhone and iPad upgrades this year, most likely stacked towards the holidays once again. Following Apple's pattern, the iPhone 6 should provide some kind of physical redesign over the 5/5s, possibly including a bigger screen. There have also been rumors of an Apple phablet in the works, and considering Samsung's success with larger-screened phones, it's an area that Apple ignores at its own risk.
We'd expect Apple's 2014 iPad updates to be a bit more minor this time around. Touch ID sensors are the next obvious addition, as well as an updated A8 system-on-a-chip. We wouldn't bet on a huge physical redesign for either model, though a lighter Retina iPad mini would be welcomed after 2013's Retina Mini added a few ounces from the 1st-gen model.
There have also been rumors flying around of a 13-in iPad Pro with a 4K display. If that comes to fruition, it will be interesting to see what angle Apple plays there. Is it aimed at businesses? Schools? Or will the company put a consumer-centric spin on it? Will it have some kind of keyboard accessory or a kickstand? Should be interesting.
Then there's the long-rumored Apple TV set. After several years of rumors with nothing to show for it, it's hard to say if that's still a top priority for the company. You never know exactly what's happening behind closed doors, but we get the impression that Apple only wants to enter the space if it can turn it on its head ... and content owners, extremely comfortable with the cable/satellite provider status quo, aren't making that part easy. We wouldn't hold our breath for an iTV in 2014, but if it does arrive, don't bet on it – or any other new Apple products – showing up anytime before September.