2016: The year Apple lost its magic

Trivial product upgrades, a few bizarre new features, executives in fantasy land, cracks in its ecosystem make Apple fans worry, not lust

2016: The year Apple lost its magic
Credit: Thinkstock

Apple’s iPhones and iPads remain the best mobile devices available, and iOS remains the best mobile operating system. All are sophisticated, with many layers of technologies that provide the most cohesive ecosystem of functionality on the market today. Macs remain stylish and high-quality, and they make for great complements to Apple’s mobile gear.

So why are so many people glum or at least unenthusiastic about Apple? Every Apple fan I meet expresses frustration, concern, and puzzlement on the new Apple products—I now rarely hear the wonder and excitement we have long associated with Apple fans. People fret about ports and dongles, and they wonder why anyone invented haptic buttons and the Touch Bar. They start looking at yesteryear’s models when the new ones come out. And they don’t crow about what cool things they can now do.

For several years, Apple has slowed down its pace of mobile innovation, making each new iPhone or iPad model less compelling an upgrade. The iPhone 6s’s 3D Touch is hardly anything to get excited about, for example. There’s also been no meaningful Mac innovation for several years, though 2014’s OS X Yosemite introduced interesting developments in MacOS.

Worse, this year’s iPhone 7 became controversial for removing its audio port, requiring people buy adapters and eliminating their ability to charge their iPhone while listening to music, watching videos, and in some cases making calls. To add insult to injury, the wireless earbuds promised to make the end of the audio jack OK have been delayed indefinitely—suggesting something is very wrong in their design or manufacture.

The “innovations” in the iPhone 7 were water resistance, long available in competing high-end Android models, and the usual set of thinner size, faster processing, and higher-quality display. That’s not the stuff that keeps fans happy.

It’s even worse for the iPad, which hasn’t seen a new model this year, but a smaller version of last year’s iPad Pro, a tablet that outside of artists and architects hasn’t resonated. It seemed like a knee-jerk response to Microsoft’s Surface Pro. Adding a detachable keyboard to an iPad is hardly an innovation.

The Apple Watch is the best smartwatch you can buy, but it’s an unnecessary device for most people. The latest WatchOS update makes it easier to use, but most people I know who have one don’t really know why they have one.

iOS has many subtle improvements, like knowing where you parked your car, but it also has awkward UI changes that make some operations harder. Misfires such as the new MacBook Pro and its bizarre Touch Bar only add to the feeling that something is amiss at Apple, especially when the new MacBook Pros switched to USB-C a month after the iPhone 7 came out still using Lightning connectors and USB-A cables. Do the mobile and computer groups at Apple not coordinate any longer?

Thus, the takeaway for users is not that the Apple has the best products but that it’s stumbling. The Apple hype machine still treats every little thing as amazing and revolutionary. But we all know it’s not, and the extreme hype has become pathetic, no longer an endearing reminder of Steve Jobs, who at least delivered on those terms. That extreme hype also corrodes the sentiments of Apple users.

In the meantime, the Android competition has gotten better—ironically by focusing on Apple-quality hardware and making the Android OS much more capable and sophisticated. Apple still leads, but the gap is closing.

Apple’s biggest advantage is now its ecosystem—the ability for Apple products to work together easily. Much of the recent ecosystem improvements leverage the Handoff technologies that let you answer an iPhone call on your Mac, send a text via your iPhone’s SMS from your iPad, copy text between your Mac and iOS devices, and share files with nearby users. But many people don’t understand or use these services, which require total commitment to an Apple hardware universe. For those who do understand and use them, the improvements are subtle—again, no jaw-droppers here.

Worse, that ecosystem is also showing cracks. The relationship between iOS devices and iTunes confuses most users, and the multiple updates to iTunes have done nothing to change that. The parallel universes of iTunes and iCloud for backup makes no sense, especially as Apple infuses iCloud into more aspects of its devices. iCloud syncing of bookmarks, mail rules, Wi-Fi connections, and so on is handy, but it often breaks down, creating weird cascades of old settings reappearing or existing settings separating based on the device you’re using. And Apple’s fit in the cloud and streaming worlds—from iTunes to iWork, from iCloud Drive to HomeKit, from Apple TV to News—is simply awkward and directionally unclear.

Then there’s Apple retreat from its hardware ecosystem, with the end of its displays and Wi-Fi routers. Apple has let these once-advanced products languish, but there’s still nothing else that does what made them special: the built-in multiport dock of the Thunderbolt Display and the easy network linking and management of the AirPort Extreme. Apple still makes keyboards, trackpads, and mice, but it raised their prices significantly this year. Of course, in one hardware area, Apple is not retreating: Apple makes dongles—lots of dongles.

Apple should evolve, but it’s far from clear that it has a good plan for that evolution. That’s the big fear among among Apple fans. Today, they’re seeing a mix of confused, ad hoc minor changes, table-stakes changes like speed improvements, and no change on both the hardware and services ends.

In other words, Apple’s polish is wearing thin in spots, at the same time its key products seem to have lost momentum and direction and its executives seem to have retreated to a fantasy world.

You know the expression “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the rest”? I fear Apple users are beginning to view Apple products the same way: Apple products are the worst computing devices except for all the rest. We’re not there yet, but boy does it feel like the drowning Apple of the late 1990s all over again.

Even if it avoids a repeat of that near-death experience, Apple risks being the best but inspiring no passion. For most people, there’s little joy in getting a new iPhone 7, iPad Pro, or Apple Watch. They’re pretty much like the ones they replaced.

If the joy is gone, can Apple bring it back? I don’t know. Maybe mobile devices are now like PCs, which at best can improve in their specs and cosmetics but fundamentally are what they’ll ever be. There’s no joy in that, even if they do the job perfectly. I hope there’s more joy possible, but I’m losing hope. And I’m hardly alone.

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