Apple Year-End Report Card: A

Somewhere between 2006 and today, I stopped considering Apple an underdog. And I'm not just talking about their iPod numbers nor am I talking about their nowhere-close-to-Windows marketshare. I mean, screw marketshare, really: Does Porsche outsell Honda? Apple busted out some serious products like the iPhone and iPods and made aggressive growth in their notebook lines. That's not to say they had it easy. But I think all in all, Apple deserves a solid A for their products and excellent damage control.

iPhone: A-

By measure of size of the market, it could be considered that the iPhone is Apple's most important product launch since the Mac. Within six months of launching, the iPhone came and overtook Windows Mobile in US marketshare. The UI turned out brilliant, and the keyboard and lack of 3G turned out to be pretty minor problems. (Important and fresh as it is, missing features and the initial $599 price caused us to recommend people wait to buy it.)


There were some problems outside the product, though. The price drop from $599 to $399 had early adopters very unhappy, and Jobs' peace offering of a $100 dollar rebate earned criticism too. (Even from Woz) iPhone hackers met resistance as Apple's firmwares setup obstacles to installing apps. And I still have a bricked iPhone here that ate it after firmware 1.1.1 killed iPhones unlocked using the iPhone Dev Team's AnySIM program. Apple's official fix, "Buy a new one", didn't sit well with anyone, but it's clear they weren't going to go out of their way to work with hacks. Especially those that threatened their revenue sharing agreement they set up with AT&T. We kicked and screamed for 3rd party programs; Jobs eventually wrote another letter revealing that the iPhone would get a public SDK, with security safeguards, come February. Even before then, unofficial app developers have patched so many of the phone's shortcomings, such as MMS, location awareness on the maps and custom ringtones. For the record, and against my cautious "wait to buy" verdict, I've been using the iPhone on and off since launch and loving it in spite of its flaws. 31% of Giz readers are doing the same, according to a recent poll.

Leopard OS: A

Leopard finally shipped into our desktops and hearts. After two Worldwide Developer Conferences and several months of iPhone-induced delays, Leopard launched. It was an understated occasion in the best possible way for Apple. Bugs were squashed with a patch issued about two weeks later, and although there are some quirky new features, Leopard's best trait is an overall streamlining of daily use: quickly turning emails into to-do or calendar items with a few clicks; Quick Look's ability to scan large amounts of media quickly; etc. Compare that to Vista, which PC World just dubbed the biggest disappointment of the year, while Dell reissued XP sales. A quiet launch is a good launch, although Apple did report 2 million in sales in the first weekend. (Relatively speaking, Leopard had a better adoption rate than Vista, but by absolutes, the much bigger Windows user base ended up snatching 20 million copies of Vista in the first month.) If you actually think Vista is better, more power to you: OS X's Boot Camp was upgraded this year to support Vista in case you forgot. Game over, man, game over.


iPods: A-

For a while, almost every major competitor (Creative, SanDisk, Zune) has had a product ladder that trumped the Apple model they targeted with features, like stronger format support, built-in FM tuners, video playback or price. This year Apple fought back with the iPod touch's UI and superior screen-to-surface-area ratio borrowed from the iPhone. It also introduced the video-capable nano, one we initially called "fat" but later recognized as having the same fine lines as any Italian automobile: Contoured and sharp at the same time, ultimately the nicest feeling in one's tight jeans. The classic is there to satiate those who prefer to carry their entire music collection at once, but I resent its title given that it does not come in white. The shuffle was designed for gyms, junior family members and Xmas stockings, and only Apple could spin the lack of an LCD—something quickly becoming standard in the premium-cheapo MP3 players arena—as an asset and namesake.


As its been, the iPod continues to be the focal point of Apple's mainstream power, with plenty of Windows-indoctrinated iPod owners dipping their toes into the Mac water and finding out they appreciate iPod-like computers and cellphones. Lack of advanced codec support for DivX and the like continues to be an ignorant stance on how users are finding content these days. (This would not be as much as of issue if the video store was more fully stocked, hint hint.)


Computers: A

The Mac product line has been updating much quicker than in the PowerPC days, with updates coming weeks behind Windows machine counterparts. The 15-inch MacBook Pro got a noteworthy midyear update to LED backlighting and Santa Rosa chips, and the iMac got a new glass face and a beautiful aluminum case stamped from a single piece of metal. Both are outstanding models and values, with the MacBook Pro earning PC World's title of fastest Vista notebook ever, and consumer reports rating them higher than all other notebooks.

The Mac mini and the MacBook standard got some minor speed bumps, but no breathtaking updates. The powerful Mac Pro desktops seem to be destined for workplace use, as the mainstream's love for all-in-ones and notebooks grows quarter after quarter. (In Q3, notebook sales were up 34% from 2006; a full 62% of sales were notebooks.) There is a place in my heart for a 12-inch notebook to replace the G4-powered PowerBook, but this could be rectified by the announcement of the long rumored ultralight MacBook in Macworld '08. Crossing my fingers. Also, to be fair, these notebooks need to all start packing LED backlighting, flash SSD drives and 3G connections to stay competitive in 2008. Card readers wouldn't hurt either.


TV, Hollywood and Music Industry Cooperation: D

Jobs wrote that open letter to the music industry asking for a stop to DRM. EMI and Jobs broke the news that they'd be doing DRM-free music on iTunes initially but competitors like Amazon caught up while iTunes started to stall. The movie list on iTunes continues to be not so great, even if it did just pick up Trading Places (Mortimer!). I'm not sure this problem is Apple's fault. The powers that be in old guard media just don't want all that power of distribution to aggregate in iTunes. ITunes is my favorite program for media loading to a portable, but Matt Buchanan, Giz writer, explains it best here:

When you open up the iTunes store, "shaky" is probably not the first word that springs to mind as a description for its relationship with content providers. But anyone searching for their favorite video content is going to find some holes. The NBC flameout was just the loudest rumble, causing iTunes to lose a lot of its most popular TV content while NBC pushed this video Netflix and Amazon and some other sites, while co-founding its own free video service, Hulu, with Fox . Don't forget Universal Music gave iTunes the finger as well on a long-term contract, and now supplies non-DRM music to iTunes competitors Wal-Mart and Amazon. It may even go on its own there too. This is a problem when you're talking about a provider responsible for 40 percent of iTunes' video downloads and the largest catalog of music on the planet. The iTunes/iPod monopoly fear is also why movie prices might shoot up and long-rumored rentals are total vapor. Something's gotta give, and so far no one's blinking.


Apple TV: C

Apple didn't try very hard here. The execution is solid, but underwhelming. Its foot is in the living-room door, but as Jobs described Apple TV at All Things D, it's a hobby for the company clearly focused on its computers and its portable phone and music players. The YouTube addition announced at All Things D as an honor to Mossberg's event was nice. How about we go to a full-on Mac mini DVR hybrid and get an OS X machine with an extended Front Row menu capability for couch surfing.


Rumor Control: C

The new game: When Apple C&D's a publication, you can call it proof that the photo belongs to them, and that the device is at least a prototype, like in the case of the leaked iPod nano shots. At least Apple must be satisfied that Think Secret is dead (RIP), but its not like they were responsible for the major body of Apple leaks and rumors in 2007. (See Media Control section below.) This year, Apple brought many rumors to life; in 2008, we have rumors of ultralight laptops and multitouch Macs, and the second coming of the iPhone. What I want in 2008 is a left-field product no one has even thought of before, announced at a keynote, previously unleaked. Boom.


Keynote Reality Distortion Field: B The January Macworld iPhone announcements were epic. The fact that the phone remained unleaked alone was a miracle. Even the malfunctions were decent: Jobs used a frozen slide as an opportunity to tell some stories about pranks that he and Woz pulled off in their younger years, making the event more personal. At the end, Steve thanked families of Apple for understanding late nights at work without knowing what was being built. After it was done, there were no demos of iPhones, just a prototype taunting us in 360 degrees as it rotated in its glass case. At WWDC, iMac and iPod launches later in the year, forementioned product leaks and reinterative presentations on Leopard took the steam out of most events. Steve's boom count was lower than at previous events, too, and stock prices dropped (a bit) afterwards as Wall Street was left without much significant new product to get excited about.


Media Control: N/A

Some think that Apple coverage in the papers and blogs seem blown out of proportion to other tech coverage. It has even been suggested by the occasional chemically unbalanced Zune fan that I give Steve Jobs blowjobs. All that venom, found in the comments of this site and in emails, have made me a little afraid to express my appreciation for the work the Cupertino kids do. If anything, we expect a lot more from them, and are unforgiving when they fuck up. (Again, I bring up our iPhone recommendation.) So I find that integrity for a gadget journo in 2007 meant delivering honest Apple verdicts at the risk of appearing a shill. (There is nothing more frightening for a tech hardware journalist than this.) But at least we were not alone. The mainstream big hitters like Pogue and Mossy have always loved Apple's work. But this year, PC Magazine's crusty John Dvorak proved that even the toughest critics have warmed this year. I recall that Consumer Reports ranked the 15 and 17-MacBook Pros best in class in a recent buyer's guide (although not the standard MacBooks) and PC World's tested a MacBook Pro to be the fastest machine running Vista at the time they went to press. Time's iPhone "Gadget of the Year" magazine cover made me want to freaking barf, but its not untrue. Apple has had the best year in recent history and I hope they meet the high expectations we've formed for them in 2008. Regarding the Think Secret settlement announced this week, if they start offering buckets of cash to this publication to stop rumor mongering, it isn't going to get them very far.


Final Grade: A

[Gizmodo's Year-End Report Cards 2008]


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