Looking back over the last 12 months, it’s clearly been eventful for Apple—and that’s even without taking a global pandemic into account. The company has been busy, especially in the fall product season, but as the year draws to a close, it’s time to cast a gimlet eye over all the decisions the Cupertino-based company has made and—as is our annual tradition—pick out the ones that will ultimately have the largest impact on its future.
There were almost too many to choose from this year, but looking at a larger theme, I think it would be about Apple deciding to stretch itself, make some choices that we wouldn’t necessarily consider very Apple-like. Even if, in the end, those decisions were perhaps the most Apple-like of all.
Let’s not beat around the bush: the most important move Apple made in 2020 was one that many industry watchers had expected for several years. The company both announced and began to transition the Mac to its own silicon from the Intel processors they’ve used for 14 years.
Apple silicon as a whole has been one of the great success stories for the company over the last decade: the iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch—really, every product in Apple’s stable—have shown the benefits of what happens when Apple truly controls hardware and software. But until this year, the Mac had been the odd product out.
Anticipation was high to see what the company could accomplish when it brought the same level of performance and efficiency to a product with much, much higher tolerances (and expectations) than mobile devices, and while there were plenty of naysayers arguing that Apple couldn’t just “walk in,” the results have effectively silenced them. The M1-powered Macs have proved to be formidable machines, with performance that blows away their Intel predecessors, while providing unparalleled battery life.
And those handful of Macs that have made the jump are just the beginning–bigger things are obviously in store for next year and beyond. Apple might only be one company, but where it goes, the industry often follows. The move away from Intel and the venerable x86 architecture is going to have impacts throughout the tech industry.
Four iPhones for the price of four
In past years, Apple has released a couple different models of iPhones in the fall, but this year, they surpassed all others with four different versions, ranging from the petite iPhone 12 mini all the way to the gargantuan Pro Max. A smaller iPhone has been high on the wish list of many customers for some time, and the iPhone 12 mini has delivered, providing strong performance in a tiny package.
But what this signifies on a larger level is Apple’s willingness to listen to its customers. Perhaps the slice of the market demanding a smaller phone was not the biggest—initial sales seem to suggest that the mini’s sales are smaller than its larger siblings—but it was a vocal one. And as with past products, Apple’s strategy seems to be that if it thinks it can deliver a device without any compromises, then it will.
This certainly seems to pave the way for future years’ lineups; just as the Pro Max has become a staple, the mini seems well positioned to bracket the offerings, both in terms of size and price. Apple’s always been careful to provide a range of phones for all customers, though in the past, that’s often meant providing phones with more compromises, like the iPhone XR, or keeping the iPhone 8 around, or even the iPhone SE. This year, it seems like the company may have found its formula.
We don’t traditionally think of Apple as a price-conscious company, but in 2020 it made at least two significant decisions that challenge that perception.
First, the company confirmed that it would offer a much-rumored bundle for its increasing number of services. The Apple One bundle offers three tiers, all of which provide a significant discount—if you’re already using all those services, that is. Customers who want a specific benefit, like the new Fitness+ service, have to go up to the highest tier, which comes bundled with the company’s least successful offering, News+, as well. (Which, let’s be honest, you may or may not want. So are you really saving money?)
While it might seem like a consumer-friendly move, don’t be too distracted: Apple wouldn’t be making this move if it didn’t think its bottom-line benefited.
On the other end of the business, the company also announced late in the year that it would be rolling out a new App Store Small Business Program, which would—for the first time—provide an across-the-board cut of the percentage Apple takes on apps sold through its storefront. There are caveats, of course: it only applies to businesses that make less than $1 million in a year, and it’s easier to lose that status than it is to get it back.
There are plenty of reasons why Apple might have made this move, not least among them increased scrutiny from government regulators. But, again, the company seems to be cannily calculating that the impact will be minor, and it gets to look more progressive than some of its competitors. That’s a win-win for Cupertino. (I also wouldn’t be shocked to see this as a trial balloon for more changes to the App Store rules within a couple years.)
Like I said, 2020 was busy, and there were plenty of other things that will likely have lasting significance for the company, like moving its annual Worldwide Developers Conference to a virtual format (a change that might be here to stay), opening its online store in India (a huge new potential market), adding a lower priced Apple Watch SE (following in the footsteps of its iPhone strategy to hold onto the low-end of the market), and the semi-retirement of longtime exec Phil Schiller. Plus, much, much more.
More than anything else, Apple has proved that it’s extremely capable of adapting to a new normal in 2020, and doing so without missing a beat. Of course, all of this only sets the stage for a banner year in 2021, even as the world remains in the grips of the coronavirus. Next week, I’ll run down the biggest things to keep your eye on for the year ahead, so stay tuned.
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Dan has been writing about all things Apple since 2006, when he first started contributing to the MacUser blog. He's a prolific podcaster and the author of the Galactic Cold War series, including his latest, The Nova Incident, coming in July 2022.