My 2020 Apple Report Card

Jason Snell has published his annual Six Colors Apple Report Card for 2020. This year 55 voters (hand-selected by Snell) graded Apple in 12 areas. I was one of them, and, once again, thought it only fair to publish my grades and remarks here at Daring Fireball. Comments in [brackets] are additional commentary I wrote now, and were not included in what I submitted to Snell.

Mac: A

This one is easy. The M1 Macs mark the best moment in Mac hardware history. Apple Silicon is that big a deal. MacOS 11 Big Sur is a success too. I think it’s fair to say we all have some gripes about certain visual aspects of the Big Sur user interface, but almost all of my issues are cosmetic. Structurally, Big Sur debuted as a more stable, more reliable OS than 10.15 Catalina ever was.

iPhone: A

I have one major complaint about iPhone in 2020: the iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max are too heavy. But even that’s more of a wish than a complaint. We finally got a small iPhone again with the 12 Mini, and it’s a great device — a technical peer to the regular-sized iPhone 12 in every regard but (understandably) battery life. iOS 14 is a really nifty update, with a focus on enthusiast/power user features like Shortcuts and home screen widgets. You can see the bones of a conceptual system that will last for decades, just like MacOS has.

iPad: A

What a strange year the iPad had. (What a strange year we all had….) Hardware wise, iPad Pro got a very unusual “speed bump” update early in the year, adding one extra GPU core and a lidar sensor on the camera system that doesn’t seem to have many practical uses. The new iPad Air introduced in the fall is nice — bringing the modern no-more-Home-button conceptual design to the non-Pro lineup. But the biggest thing to happen in iPadland in 2020 was the introduction of full mouse and keyboard support, in March, along with the excellent (albeit expensive) Magic Keyboard. This is the single biggest addition to iPad in memory — it completely changes the number of tasks and sort of apps iPad is “good for”. And it came not at WWDC or alongside splashy new hardware models, but in an iPadOS 13.4 update released in the middle of what’s usually a pretty quiet stretch of the calendar for Apple.

I am absolutely certain that the addition of excellent mouse pointer support throughout iPadOS changed my daily routine — I spend far more time using mine now because I’m far more productive for things like email and messaging and actual writing.

Apple Watch: B

Wearables (Including Apple Watch): A

My only complaint about AirPods is that they remain so expensive. I’d really like to see Apple get them down to $99, or at least closer. It’s a bit odd, to me, that they haven’t come down in price at all since they were introduced. I’m not naive — I understand profit motive — but I just know, anecdotally, that for all the millions of happy AirPods users out there, there’s a lot of resistance to spending $159 “just for headphones”.

Apple TV (Hardware/OS): D

It’s very odd to me that Apple clearly cares a lot about TV content, but seemingly doesn’t have a coherent strategy for the hardware. It’s not expensive per se, but it is very expensive compared to other “streaming boxes”, and yet hasn’t been updated since 2017. Lots of people spend lots of time playing video games on boxes connected to their TVs, and Apple TV is a full-fledged part of Apple Arcade, but I don’t know anyone who plays video games on Apple Arcade. (Selling a would-be game box without a gaming controller probably isn’t a good strategy.)

But you can’t chalk it up to “Well Apple just doesn’t care about TV” because the success of Apple TV+ and continuing excellence of the iTunes Store show they clearly do.

Services: B

Apple One is a good bundle at a compelling price.

HomeKit/Home: B

It feels like this whole effort is on the cusp of being more practically useful and less of a hobbyist endeavor.

Overall Reliability of Apple’s Hardware: A

None of my stuff broke so I’m happy. I had a pair of AirPods Pro get the dreaded “static during phone calls” thing, but Apple is doing the right thing with their repair program.

Apple Software Quality: B

Apple, famously, doesn’t like to explain itself, but the evidence seems clear that they’ve subtly moved to a model where major new OS features are released when they are ready, scattered over the course of the year. They’ve found a better balance between wanting to make big new tentpole feature announcements at WWDC, and shipping those features when they’re actually ready, not just when the 1.0 version of the OS is released.

[If I had it to do all over again, I’d change this grade from a B to a C. At the time I voted, I was thinking only in terms of reliability and bugginess, and I do think 2020 was a decent year for Apple on that front. But as I revise these remarks today, I’m reminded of all the UI and interaction designs and changes in iOS and MacOS that are just bad. There’s a real sense that Apple’s current HI team, under Alan Dye, is a “design is what it looks like” group, not a “design is how it works” group. Exhibit A: What MacOS 11 Big Sur has done to document proxy icons. Arguably it looks better to hide them. (I disagree, but I can see the counterargument.) Inarguably, they work far worse now — harder to use for people who use them, and much harder to discover for people who don’t yet know about them.]

Social/Societal Impact: B

[I think Apple genuinely believes in the causes it supports: environmentalism, racial equity and justice, and more. Anything beats last year, though.]

Developer Relations: C

You can look at the “Hey” fiasco right before WWDC and see it as a disaster, the perfect storm illustrating the problems with Apple’s tight control over the App Store, or look at it as an example of the system working. Apple made mistakes, then corrected the mistakes. I think the core problem is that Apple needs to recognize that a happy developer base is an incredible asset for the company. It’s not in Apple’s interests to squeeze every last cent out of the App Store. They’ve caught the attention of government regulators around the world, and developers, rightly or wrongly, feel like they’re being squeezed. There’s a palpable sense of resentment.

It’s in Apple’s interests to foster a broad community of “Apple platform developers”. To inspire and encourage developers to rely on Apple’s platforms to build apps that are exclusive to those platforms. Apple benefits promotionally from such exclusivity, and users benefit from apps that are crafted to take advantage of native platform features. But the power dynamics of the App Store are such that developers feel like they need to do the opposite: to build cross-platform apps and systems to avoid relying on Apple.

The App Store Small Business Program introduced at the end of the year is a step in the right direction. But just a step.