Apple 2019 year in review: A breakout year for services

Apple's products delivered more of what users want, but it's the brand new services that stole the show.

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In 2018, Apple seemed to primarily address long-held grievances of its fans. Long-overlooked products were finally updated, a smart speaker (suspicious by its absence from Apple’s portfolio) was launched, and iOS 12 put a big emphasis on performance and reliability.

This year took Apple in an expected but still exciting new direction. Product updates were welcome but not surprising, and the company didn’t enter a new product category. Instead, the company’s big push into services defined the year. That, and a rough set of software launches.

Here are the hits, misses, and major releases from Apple in 2019.

Operating System snags

While there’s a lot to like about iOS 13 and iPadOS 13, it’s hard to see them as revolutionary. Features like Dark Mode, better Siri voice, a swiping keyboard, and a new CarPlay interface are less about innovation and more about finally addressing grips that customers have had for years.

The same goes for the company’s smaller operating systems, like tvOS. You can finally log in to different user accounts...why is this an exciting new feature in 2019?

Similarly, macOS Catalina is chock full of minor features and redesigned apps that feel like they should have been there all along. The break-up of iTunes into Music, Podcasts, and TV has been a long time coming.

Despite the “they should have done this ages ago” nature of Apple’s operating systems this year, the launch was pretty rough. The release of iOS 13 and iPadOS 13 (now broken into separate but related releases) was staggered, and followed by an unusually long list of point-releases to fix a litany of bugs and give us several features that didn’t make the release date.

paroject catalyst mac Apple

Project Catalyst should have caused a surge in great Mac apps, but developers are frustrated with it.

One highlight of Apple’s 2019 OS releases should have been Catalyst, a technology to allow developers to make Mac apps using the same UIKit framework they use to make iOS apps. Port your iPad app in one day!

But the Catalyst release has been messy. Developers have complained about the difficulty of making Catalyst apps look and behave as Mac apps are expected to, and the inability to charge users once for both the iPad and Mac version of the app. Documentation and sample code is, at best, thin.

What had the potential to usher in thousands of incredible new Mac apps from the enormous iOS developer community has had very little impact at all. It feels rushed out the door, but will probably improve a lot over the next couple years.

Lackluster iPad updates

While iPadOS 13 went a long way toward making the iPad into the productivity tool it is destined to become, the iPad hardware releases in 2019 have been relatively tame.

Early in the year we got a new iPad Air and iPad mini, both of which were fine spec bumps but did little to change the iPad line. Same with the new 10.2-inch iPad launched at the end of September.

ipad air 2019 hero Dan Masaoka/IDG

The iPad line is bigger than ever, but this years’ updates weren’t very exciting.

Apple hasn’t updated the iPad Pro since last year, and still maintains this odd dichotomy in iPads: two distinct and incompatible Apple Pencils; some with Lightning connectors and home buttons, others with USB-C and Face ID. Rather than take any moves to unify and simplify the iPad lineup, Apple has more models than ever, most of them fundamentally the same as those released four or five years ago.

AirPods Pro impress

Apple’s AirPods have been a smash success, and this year they got even better. The second-generation AirPods that replaced the first tweaked the successful formula a little, adding hands-free Siri support and an optional wireless charging case.

airpods pro hero Jason Cross/IDG

The AirPods Pro take the successful AirPods formula to the next level. They’re sure to be a big hit.

But it’s the AirPods Pro, released later in the year, that really take Apple’s earbuds to the next level. At $249 they’re a lot more expensive, but so worth it. Smaller and more comfortable, they have silicone tips to create a seal in your ear, which helps make them sound better. Active noice cancelling is a game-changer that really enhances the listening experience.

If you have AirPods, you don’t necessarily need to upgrade. But AirPods Pro are so delightful that, despite the higher price, there’s almost no reason anyone should buy regular AirPods anymore.

A barely-new Apple Watch

Apple released a new Apple Watch this year, as it has every year since the original. After a dramatic upgrade with the Series 4 last year, this years’ Apple Watch Series 5 is perhaps the smallest upgrade yet for Apple’s wrist computer.

The new Apple Watch has more storage and an always-on display (that seriously reduces battery life), but is otherwise not meaningfully different from last year’s model. It’s so similar that Apple stopped selling the Series 4 rather than just dropping its price.

apple watch series 5 display Christopher Hebert/IDG

The new Apple Watch isn’t very different from last year’s model.

Business changes

While we focus primarily on products and services here, there have been changes to Apple’s business that could have repercussions for the company’s products and services over the next few years.

Executive departures are rarely big news. This year, Angela Ahrendts, Apple’s Senior VP of Retail, left the company. Deirdre O’Brien took her place. Disney CEO Bob Iger left Apple’s board of directors, citing a conflict of interest between Apple TV+ and his own company’s new Disney+ streaming service.

But the biggest change to Apple’s executive team in years was 2019’s departure of Jony Ive. Ive has been with Apple since 1992, and was responsible for the design of many of Apple’s iconic products: the original iMac, the iPod, the iPhone and iPad, and the Apple Watch. Critics say his obsession with aesthetics sometimes got in the way of usability and utility, but there can be no doubt of the huge influence Jony Ive has had on the design of technology products, not just from Apple but across the industry.

jony ive Apple

Jony Ive’s departure from Apple is the most significant executive shakeup since Tim Cook took the reigns as CEO.

Beyond the executive changes, Apple finally settled its years-long fight with Qualcomm. The companies agreed to cease all litigation against each other and Apple agreed to a multi-year product and technology licensing agreement. It’s a big win for Qualcomm, but also for iPhone customers who want the best modems in their phones while Apple works on making its own. 

To that end, Apple bought Intel’s beleaguered cellular modem business for a billion dollars. That price got them about 2,200 employees, intellectual property, equipment, and patents. It’s expected to take years for Apple to deliver a top-notch 5G modem, but there can now be no doubt that the company is investing heavily in doing so. 

The iPhone gets better and...cheaper?

Every year, a new iPhone. And every year, it’s faster, and has a better camera. That much is to be expected, and so we shouldn’t be surprised that the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro, besides having a better naming scheme, deliver on those fronts.

But it was a bit surprising to see Apple relent on its push toward making everything thinner all the time, and to instead make the iPhone 11 just a little bit thicker, in order to greatly increase battery capacity.

It also made the phones more durable, something that users always clamor for.

iphone 11 price Apple

The new iPhones are better in mostly predictable ways, but the emphasis on battery life and price cut for the iPhone 11 were pleasant surprises.

The result is an iPhone that is fast (duh) and a seriously good camera (duh) with epic battery life (huh?) and is...*checks notes*...cheaper? The high-end “Pro” versions still cost $999 and $1,099 like last year’s iPhone XS, but the iPhone 11, the model meant to replace the extremely popular iPhone XR, costs $50 less than that phone did.

Is Apple starting to get the message that too many of its products cost too much? Well...maybe not. Its services are priced well, but then the new Mac Pro starts at a mind-melting $6,000 and goes way up from there.

The Mac is back (sort of)

Did I say new Mac Pro? Yes, after years of complaining about the restrictive nature of the old “trash can” Mac Pro, Apple’s new expandable, serviceable Mac Pro was finally released at the end of the year. It costs a lot of money, though—you can buy a base configuration for $5,999, but that comes with a laughable amount of storage, a lackluster graphics card, and a mere 8-core Intel processor.

Yes, it’s really fast and yes, it’s made for professionals spending company money. Still, it’s disappointing that the only expandable, serviceable desktop Mac is out of the reach of most enthusiasts.

Apple also launched a new monitor for the first time in years, to go alongside it’s outrageously-price desktop computer. The Pro Display XDR is a 32-inch 6K monitor with a wide color gamut, a great contrast ratio, and can go up to 1,600 nits of brightness. It’s fantastic, and it’s $5,000 ($6,000 if you want a matte finish) and doesn’t even come with a stand. That’s another $1,000.

mac pro display Roman Loyola/IDG

Finally, a new expandable, serviceable desktop Mac! Such a pity it’s priced out of range of even most enthusiasts.

The Mac Pro isn’t the only way the Mac came back this year. Most of the Mac laptops got minor product refreshes—and the 12-inch MacBook was discontinued—but the biggest MacBook Pro got more. Replacing the 15-inch model is a new 16-inch version with a slightly bigger screen and smaller bezels. More importantly, Apple replaced the keyboard that has been giving everyone fits for the last few years. Gone is the butterfly mechanism, and the scissor-switch keys are back. They’re quieter, feel better, and are probably more reliable. Apple even put a physical Esc key next to the Touch Bar!

The Mac is still long overdue for a real overhaul. New design language, new processors (maybe AMD, maybe Apple’s own ARM-based processors), Face ID, the works. At least with the Mac Pro and new 16-inch MacBook Pro, Apple shows it’s paying attention to the Mac market. Now it just needs to kick it into high gear.

Four major new Apple services

Apple has long warned us that it is going to move much more heavily into the services business, and it made good on that promise with four major new offerings this year. They were announced at an event in March with releases staggered throughout the year.

Apple News+ was the first out the gate, and is easily the most disappointing of the bunch. Apple acquired digital magazine subscription service Texture last year, and shut it down this year to throw all its magazine content (along with some leading newspapers) into the News app. Nobody really seems happy with the $9.99 per month offering; not readers and not publishers.

apple card Apple

Did Apple need to make a credit card? Definitely not. But at least it’s not a bad credit card.

The next service to be released has been received a little better. Apple Card is literally just a MasterCard credit card backed by Goldman Sachs, made specifically for Apple Pay users. Apple built applications, payments, billing analysis, and more right into the Wallet app. The interface is slick and provides good insights into your spending habits.

Plus, you get a fancy white titanium card that has no number, signature, or CCV number on it. As credit cards go, it’s all right—you get 1 percent cash back when you use the physical card, 2 percent when you use Apple Pay, and 3 percent when you buy anything from Apple (including the App Store and iTunes) or select other retailers. Importantly, there are no fees of any kind.

There are still a few wrinkles to iron out. For starters, you can’t import your Apple Card data into popular financial apps like Mint. But if you use Apple Pay a lot, and if you can pay off your entire balance every month, it’s not a bad card to have.

If you play games on your iPhone or iPad, Apple Arcade is probably the best thing Apple’s done in a long time. It debuted along with iOS 13 and macOS Catalina, and costs $4.99 per month for you and up to five others in your Family Sharing account. That very reasonable price lets you download and play over 100 games. They’re all brand new titles, and they don’t have any ads or in-app purchases. Just one subscription price and you get everything. Many of the games are available on Mac and Apple TV, too.

The titles in Apple Arcade are surprisingly good. These are best efforts from top developers, and run the gamut from kids fare to mind-bending puzzles and action games. None of the games in Apple Arcade appear in any other subscription service nor on any other mobile platform, and they’re all new originals. Those restrictions have some merit, but we can’t help but think they’re stifling the service in some ways, too. Hopefully Apple opens it up a little in 2020.

The last major service to launch this year is the one we knew about first—Apple TV+. Thanks to the Hollywood press, we’ve known about Apple’s big ambitions to launch a streaming TV service since last year, long before the company hauled a bunch of celebrities on stage to announced it. As with Apple Arcade, it costs a very reasonable $4.99 per month with Family Sharing. And what’s more, if you buy a recent Apple device capable of using the TV app, you get a very generous one-year free trial.

Apple’s slate of TV shows and movies is pretty slim to start, but the quality sets a high bar. Apple’s not licensing existing TV or movie content, but rather buying and producing new originals that will only be available on Apple’s service. In order to boost viewership, Apple worked out deals with TV makers like Samsung, LG, Vizio, and Sony and streaming hardware like Roku and Fire TV to support the TV app.

Looking ahead to 2020

For a company as secretive as Apple, it’s hard to know exactly what to expect in 2020. Certainly, we can assume there will be some iPad and Mac upgrades, a new Apple Watch, new iPhones in September, and lots of new Apple TV+ shows to watch and Apple Arcade games to play.

Perhaps the seemingly never-ending rumors of a new iPhone SE will finally come true. Maybe this is the year Apple takes the Mac in a new direction with a laptop that uses its own processors rather than Intel’s. Who can say what other new services Apple may be working on?

The fundamental question for Apple in 2020, as it is most years, is which products will get minor “spec bump” style upgrades and which will be reimagined with new designs and major new features? And when will the company debut it’s next major category-defining device—the next iPhone, iPad, or Apple Watch? That seems likely to be an augmented reality headset, but will it be ready in 2020?

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