Walt Mossberg emerged briefly from retirement today to publish a decade’s-end column about Apple for the Verge. The nutshell version of his column goes something like this: Apple’s biggest hardware introductions came in 2010 with the iPad, iPhone 4, and the modern MacBook Air — all of which were done while Steve Jobs was still in charge. But, while Apple has grown beyond anyone’s wildest imagination, the company under Tim Cook’s tenure has failed to produce a “blockbuster” product. I disagree:
Both of these Cook-era hardware innovations [AirPods and Apple Watch] made the top 10 in The Verge’s list of the 100 top gadgets of the decade. In fact, Apple not only took first place, but placed a total of four products in the top 10, the only company with more than one product in that tier.
Still, neither of these hardware successes has matched the impact or scale of Jobs’ greatest hits. Even the iPad, despite annual unit sales that are sharply down from its heyday, generated almost as much revenue by itself in fiscal 2019 as the entire category of “wearables, home and accessories” where the Apple Watch and AirPods are slotted by Apple.
This wasn’t entirely Cook’s fault. Industries go through secular phases, and this hasn’t been a decade of new blockbuster consumer gadgets on the scale of the iPhone for any company. The closest thing may be Amazon’s Echo smart speaker and Alexa voice assistant, but they’re no match for the smartphone in sales or impact — at least, not yet.
Let’s acknowledge that comparing just about any product category to the modern smartphone, as defined by the iPhone, is a flawed premise. I maintain that the smartphone is a generation-defining convergence device of near-universal functionality, with an impact that might not be replicated by any foreseeable device.
But I find it hard not to consider either the AirPods or Apple Watch blockbuster products. While both are accessories, I don’t think that diminishes their impact on Apple, the tech industry, and society at large — in fact, if anything, it indicates that we should not be so quick to dismiss the power of a dependent product. After all, it wasn’t too long ago that the iPhone and iPad couldn’t update their operating system without requiring an iTunes connection.
By the sole criteria of how they set the standard for their respective categories, the AirPods and Apple Watch are absolutely blockbusters. The sales figures implied by Apple’s earnings only reinforce that.
Other products of the Cook era that I feel have been a wild success are the introduction of class-leading biometrics — first with Touch ID, and then the successful transition to the Face ID era — the percolation of Retina Displays across the entire product line, the company’s rapid advancements in chip design, and the breakthroughs in iPhone camera quality.
Mossberg also addressed a troubled decade for the Mac:
But Cook does bear the responsibility for a series of actions that screwed up the Macintosh for years. The beloved mainstream MacBook Air was ignored for five years. At the other end of the scale, the Mac Pro, the mainstay of professional audio, graphics, and video producers, was first neglected then reissued in 2013 in a way that put form so far ahead of function that it enraged its customer base.
I think these, and even the notebook keyboard fiasco, are smaller issues than this decade’s decline in software quality. Even in the best scenario, it would take years to dig out, and so far Apple does not seem to be on that path. Cook is also responsible for the services strategy, still in the early stages, which is infecting the software design by making it AAPL-first rather than customer-first.
These are, I think, the most worrying trends of the last decade. The MacBook Air is Apple’s most popular Mac; it should have evolved more than a megahertz bump in the five years been 2013 and 2018. The Mac Pro’s six-year stagnation remains scarcely believable.
And then there’s the software. It’s hard to reconcile the leaps-and-bounds improvements in iCloud services, and radically great new features like CarPlay, with the egregious regressions across Apple’s platforms. It’s almost like all development energy is put toward new features, leaving no room for refinements, fixing bugs, and getting out of technical debt.