Top 5 Apple Stories of 2012

It’s that time of year again. A time to look back at the most significant Apple-related news stories of the year. As I did last year, I’ve selected my choice of the top 5 stories, “reflecting both the ups and downs of Apple’s year, with a bias towards the up.” I’ve also included two honorable mentions for noteworthy stories that didn’t quite qualify for a 2012 award. Let the countdown begin…

5. Mountain Lion: The iOS-ification of OS X continues

On July 25, Apple released Mountain Lion, the newest version of OS X for Macs. As Apple releases a new version of OS X every year, this isn’t big news by itself. What made Mountain Lion special was its emphasis on “iOS-ification.” This is a trend that began with Lion in 2011, but really took off with this year’s OS X update.

A look at Apple’s What’s New webpage for Mountain Lion reveals that almost every listed item is either an iOS feature imported to the Mac (Reminders, Notes, Messages, Notification Center, Game Center. Tweet from apps) or is designed to for improved interplay between iOS devices and Macs (iCloud, AirPlay). Given that iOS devices now represent the lion’s share of Apple’s revenue, this shift makes sense.

Overall, these new features are an improvement compared to how similar tasks were handled in Lion. Still, there is concern about the end game. Will OS X continue to evolve to a more iOS-like environment? Will this ultimately mean a simpler, more user-friendly Mac — one that has the bonus of effortlessly working with iPhones and iPads? Or will OS X emerge as a dumbed-down, sandboxed OS that leaves users frustrated with a host of iOS-derived restrictions and prohibitions? The answer should become clearer with the expected release of OS X 10.9 in 2013.

4. iPhone 5: Hello gorgeous!

The iPhone 5 is a knockout. Plain and simple. It improved on the previous generation of the iPhone in every aspect that matters: a larger 4″ screen, LTE support, a faster A6 processor, and an even better camera.

iPhone 5 with Maps

Plus, with its sleek thin design and metal back, it is the best looking iPhone ever. To top it off, it weighs no more than a feather (okay, two feathers).

While there has been grumbling about having to shift from the 30-pin Dock connector to the new Lightning connector, this was a necessary change. Once the period of transition is over, even Lightning will be viewed as an asset.

Competition from Android smartphones has been intense over the past year. Apple needed the new iPhone to be a big deal. It was. And it still is.

3. MacBook Pro with Retina Display: Seeing is believing

When Apple unveiled the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display last June, the consensus (as typified by John Gruber) was that it was the “best computer Apple has ever made.” Later in the year, Apple added an equally impressive 13-inch Retina display sibling.

Why are these laptops such a big deal? The answer can be summed up in two words, words that are part of the name of the devices: Retina display. Once you spend time with these displays, you will be hard-pressed to go back to anything else. To describe the display as gorgeous is an understatement. Text seems as if it were inked on by some calligraphic process; there is no hint of pixelation. Photos pop out with a startling brilliance.

That’s not all. Although not quite as thin as the MacBook Air, the Retina display notebooks are still thinner and lighter than any previous MacBook Pro. Like the Air, they feature super-fast and reliable SSD storage. And consistent with where Apple sees the future heading, these Pros no longer have an optical drive.

These MacBooks are the blueprint for Apple’s future laptops over the next couple of years. No other computer company has anything that can compete with them. And that’s why they are on the Top 5 list.

2. iPad mini: Smaller makes it bigger

Steve Jobs famously dismissed the idea of a 7-inch iPad as “too big to compete with a smartphone and too small to compete with an iPad.” The public disagreed. Conceding to the public’s appetite, Apple announced the iPad mini back in October. It was the right move. Since then, Apple has been unable to keep up with demand. It’s been a run-away hit, likely at the forefront of what will be a blockbuster holiday season for Apple.

The mini doesn’t break ground with new features. In fact, in some ways it is a step backward — especially as it lacks the Retina display of the larger iPad. But what it lacks in new features it makes up for with its primary reason for existence: a smaller size. With the growing popularity of super-large smartphones and 7-inch tablets, it was clear Apple needed a competitive entry in this market. The iPad mini is Apple’s answer.

Most reviewers admired the more compact size of the mini, with its ability to easily hold the device in one hand. In general, the smaller display size was not viewed as problematic for working with iPad-optimized apps. Many mini users expect to switch from the larger iPad to the mini as their main tablet. Indeed, pundits predict that the iPad mini will eclipse the larger iPad in market share by the end of 2013.

1. Maps: Apple’s sense of direction falters

At the start of 2012, I would never have guessed that an iOS app category would emerge as the top story of the year. But it did. Maps is not just any ol’ app category. It may be the single most critical app on an iOS device. Not only is it one of the most frequently used apps — but with its ability to locate nearby places of business and other points-of-interest, it is an important indirect source of revenue for many companies. Whoever controls the default maps app controls a key portion of iOS.

That’s essentially why Apple was increasingly uncomfortable with the fact that Google was the developer behind the Maps app for iOS. And that’s what led Apple to replace it with their own in-house version of Maps, introduced as part of iOS 6.

It was not a smooth introduction.

It turned out that Apple’s Maps app had accuracy issues, too often leading to a “wrong” destination. Complaints from users quickly became front page news. In a rare move, Apple was forced to issue a letter of apology, where it suggested alternative mapping apps while Apple worked to improve its own app. Complicating matters further, Scott Forstall (head of iOS software development) refused to sign the apology statement, which became a precipitating factor in his being fired from Apple.

Mapping again made news when an updated version of Google’s Maps app returned to iOS in December. The new version was better than ever — including Google offering turn-by-turn directions for the first time on an iOS device. Personally, assuming both Apple’s and Google’s apps were equally accurate, I prefer Apple’s Maps overall. For one thing, I find it easier to set up a route with it. However, Google’s app offers the plus of transit directions. In the end, the battle between the two apps a win-win situation for iOS users.

The fall-out from the Maps app controversy extends beyond the world of mapping. A few years from now, I believe it will be seen as a tipping point event that broke a long-standing magic spell surrounding Apple.

Almost immediately after the controversy erupted, Apple’s stock began a 200-point (and still counting) decline. The decline was partly attributed to the Maps business. However, other negative trends also contributed to analysts’ concerns. Most critical was increased competition in the mobile market, especially from Samsung’s Android devices. And for the first time in years, numerous articles appeared that questioned whether or not Apple had peaked.

Some analysts attributed the decline to a sell-off, prior to an expected capital gains increase in 2013. By this measure, you can expect Apple stock to go up again in January. And there is no doubt that Apple continues to rake in money on impressive sales of its devices. Still, at least on Wall Street and among many journalists, there has been a negative shift in the mindset towards Apple. The ultimate fate of Apple’s stock, and Apple’s overall market dominance, remains in flux.

Honorable mentions

AirPlay: Living in the future. AirPlay has been around for quite some time. Initially, called AirTunes, it was introduced in 2004; the shift to an expanded AirPlay version occurred in 2010. While this would seem to make it ineligible for a 2012 list, I include it here because of its recently expanded capabilities, primarily mirroring. You can now mirror almost anything on a Mac or an iOS device to an Apple TV. With third-party software such as Reflector, you can similarly mirror iOS displays to a Mac.

I continue to be blown away by what AirPlay easily allows you to do. Whenever my wife asks a technology question that ends in “Can we do this?,” my answer is increasingly “Yes.” And, more often than not, the reason for the affirmative reply is AirPlay. As an example, I received some photos as text messages the other day. My wife asked if she could see them on our TV. The answer was yes. On another occasion, she wanted to watch a TV show she had forgotten to record. I found the show on the network’s website, but it could only be viewed from the web. Again, she preferred to see it on our television. No problem with AirPlay.

AirPlay is just one element of a larger trend towards more sophisticated interactions among all of our increasingly powerful technology devices. It’s beginning to feel as if we are living in the future…when the things I saw in science-fiction movies years ago are now reality. And Apple technologies, such as AirPlay, are at the forefront of this trend.

iCloud: Moving on up. This was the year that Apple terminated MobileMe and went all in with iCloud. The new service is far from perfect. I still prefer Dropbox for many tasks. But with iTunes Match, PhotoStream, Documents in the Cloud (especially when used with iWork documents), and numerous other iCloud-dependent capabilities, we are finally seeing the practical benefits of Apple-integrated cloud storage. It’s all part of a evolutionary shift, clearly endorsed by Apple, towards the cloud as the key component for the storage and manipulation of all our data. Expect this shift to accelerate in 2013.

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Moving the political spectrum

The most important lesson I’ve learned in politics is not a complicated or profound idea. It’s pretty simple actually. But it has helped immensely in my understanding of how things work politically speaking. It’s been especially useful when I have had to come to terms with why my (usually left-leaning) ideas, despite being so obviously wonderful (at least to me), too often do not succeed when put to a vote of the electorate.

The lesson is this:

Positions near the extreme ends of the political scale, right or left, almost never get adopted by the electorate as a whole. It doesn’t matter whether an idea is the most incredible one to come along since humans discovered fire. It’s doesn’t matter by what objective criteria one can prove that the idea is superior to any conceivable alternative. It’s not going to be implemented as long as the position remains seated at the far edge of the political spectrum. Why? Because, almost by definition, positions near the extremes have the support of only a small minority of voters.

In many cases, this restraint is a good thing. It acts as a protection against passage of laws that go off the rails by moving too far in one direction or alternating laws that wildly swing back and forth like an out-of-control pendulum.

But what about those times when an extreme idea is actually a great idea? Is there really no chance for such ideas to be implemented?

We needn’t be that pessimistic or cynical. There is a way for such ideas to succeed.

To obtain success, rather than push for your idea in the short run, you need to go for a long run shift of the political spectrum towards your desired direction — so that your “extreme” idea is no longer at the fringes.

Superficially, this approach may not sound all that different from what I just declared as impossible. However, the two approaches are very different. And this gets us to the core of the “lesson.”

Think of it this way: Suppose you could assign a number to all political ideas, using a scale of 1-100, with 1 being most left and 100 being most right. Let’s further assume that the range of ideas up for debate at any point in time represents only a portion of the total scale. After eliminating any “lunatic fringe” notions, let’s say the current spectrum spans from 35 to 65.

Now let’s say your extreme proposal ranks at 38 on the scale. For people in the middle or to the right of the middle (50 or above), your idea represents a shift of 12 points or more. This requires too big a leap for center and right people to make in one election cycle, no matter how compelling your idea or how persuasive your arguments. As you’ll need support from at least some of these people for your idea to win an election, you have no hope of getting your idea into law. At least not today.

So let’s try something else. Let’s work over the long term of several election cycles to move the whole political spectrum in your direction, step by tiny step. With a combination of skill, luck and shifting demographics, let’s say you manage to move the spectrum 10 points in a dozen years. In this hypothetical example, this would mean that the spectrum now spans 25 to 55. Suddenly, your “38” idea isn’t so extreme any more. In fact, it’s only only two points away from dead center. Put it up for a vote now, and you have a good shot at winning.

This is precisely what conservatives have been working to achieve ever since Barry Goldwater lost his bid for the presidency back in 1964. And it’s what’s they have largely succeeded in doing ever since Ronald Reagan was elected president. Most political analysts would agree that that today’s political spectrum is “center-right” and far more right-leaning than it was back in the 1960’s.

This is partially why “liberal” has become almost a derogatory word, with few if any Democrats wishing to describe themselves with the term. In contrast, as evidenced by the most recent presidential primaries, Republicans eagerly scramble to see who can grab the crown of being hailed as the most “conservative.” When it comes to legislation, Democrats remain largely on the defensive, trying to hang on to the status quo, while Republicans keep pushing for more and more conservative legislation — often with great success.

But this pendulum swing to the right may be coming to end. It’s still too early to say for certain, but signs are sure pointing in this direction.

This is a year when Colorado and Washington passed laws legalizing recreational user of marijuana. It’s a year when Maine and Maryland joined an increasing number of states that have legalized same-sex marriages.

Tammy Baldwin, an openly gay woman, defeated former Gov. Tommy Thompson to become the next Senator from Wisconsin. A clearly left-wing Elizabeth Warren defeated Scott Brown in Massachusetts. In other key Senate races, Claire McCaskill and Joe Donnelly defeated Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock respectively, defeats for those that believe in “legitimate rape” that is “God’s will.” More seriously, it was a defeat for those Republicans who mistakenly believed that women (or men for that matter) didn’t care about such issues.

This election almost certainly signaled the end of a strong push for more restrictive immigration laws, as even the most conservative of Republicans come to terms with how their anti-minority positions are hurting them at the polls.

And, of course, Obama won re-election in an electoral college landslide, taking seven of the eight swing states. And he did so on a platform that strongly asserted an intention to raise taxes.

Here in California, Democrats have a super-majority in both legislative houses for the first time in decades. And Proposition 30, a critical proposal to raise taxes, passed.

Perhaps most significantly, in regards to the point I’m making about shifting the spectrum, “Obamacare” will now be the law of the land. The dangers of a Supreme Court overturn or a Romney repeal are gone. Obamacare is still a far cry from the “universal health care” that those on the extreme left would prefer. But take heart lefties. The spectrum has shifted. Not too long ago, Obamacare was considered so extreme as to have no chance of becoming law. And yet here we are. I predict that, in another few years, Obamacare will be viewed as the “middle” position in the debate — making universal health care seem far less extreme than it is today. This doesn’t guarantee its passage — not by a long shot. But it moves universal health care from impossible to doable.

And that’s how formerly extreme ideas become law. You don’t get the country to support an extreme position. You get the position to no longer be considered extreme.

A few years ago, who would have thought that a gay couple could get legally married in this country, serve marijuana instead of wine at the reception, and not worry about getting arrested? Times change.

Heck, not too long ago, who would have thought an African-American could get elected President?

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Jailbreaking’s Bleak Future

With the release of iOS 6 together with the recent JailbreakCon gathering, I figured it was time for me to once again take stock of where things stand on the matter of jailbreaking my iOS devices.

Over the years, I have been a strong supporter of jailbreaking. This has been both a matter of principle (I have never been entirely happy with Apple’s “closed” App Store policies) and practicality (there were numerous things I wished to do with my iOS devices that I could only do via jailbreaking).

In the past year or so, however, my enthusiasm for jailbreaking has waned.

The primary reason is because of the decline of “practicality” as a reason to jailbreak. Or, as the above linked Cult of Mac article calls it: “getting Sherlocked,” defined as “implementing a new idea only to have it copied by Apple later.”

In other words, almost all the reasons I’ve had to jailbreak my iOS devices in the past are now gone. They’ve been eliminated by the new features added to iOS over the years. I had this reaction after the release of iOS 5. My reaction has only gotten stronger with the release of iOS 6 — due to the addition of options such as Guided Access (which ended my need for the IncarcerApp jailbreak app).

The other reason I am down on jailbreaking (again, as I have outlined previously) is that the process of jailbreaking has become too much of a hassle for me to want to bother with it. In particular, after an iOS software or hardware update, it can be months before a reliable jailbreak arrives. Until then, I am forced to either postpone the iOS update or give up on the jailbreak. Too often, when a dependable jailbreak finally gets released, Apple is already preparing a new iOS update that will render the jailbreak useless. As I an unwilling to postpone major iOS updates, I typically wind up spending more of a year without a jailbreak than with one.

There also continues to be the risk that, as has occasionally happened to me, jailbreaking results in problems for some other apps on my iOS devices. A jailbreak attempt itself may go wrong, requiring a restore of the device to get things working again.

This is not a criticism of the people who work on these jailbreaks. I recognize that they are doing the best they can in combatting the obstacles that Apple puts in their way. It’s just that I no longer have the inclination to fight along side of them.

The lone reason I even consider jailbreaking anymore is to have root access to the drive — via utilities such as iFile. This access allows me to perform an assortment of activities that no App Store app will ever be permitted to do — from simply being able to view and edit all files on my iOS devices to sharing files over Bluetooth.

There are a few other jailbreak apps I would find helpful, but not helpful enough to overcome my resistance to the hassles of jailbreaking. I am no longer willing to rely on apps, no matter how potentially useful they might be, that I know I will have to abandon for months (perhaps forever) after each new iOS release. It’s a one-two knockout punch.

Another quote from the same the Cult of Mac article states:

There could come a day when Apple makes it so unfeasible to jailbreak that the community around JailbreakCon falls apart. But until that day, the future of jailbreaking is bright.”

I don’t share this “bright” assessment. I believe that “unfeasible” is just around the corner, if not already here. Even if an iOS 6 and iPhone 5 jailbreak eventually comes to pass, the iOS jailbreakers have never been more than a small percentage of total users. I am convinced that, with each new release of iOS, that number will shrink.

I still have my objections to Apple’s policies in this arena. The problem is that I no longer believe that jailbreaking will ever be the solution to these objections. Jailbreaking may continue to survive among a small community of users, such as those who attended and followed JailbreakCon. But its influence will be more and more marginalized going forward — until it reaches the point of irrelevance. I’m not looking forward to when this happens. But I believe it is what will happen. At some point, you have to recognize that the war has been lost and it’s time to move on. For me, that time is now.

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Apple’s crazy iPod nano

The iPod nano could be Apple’s answer to “How would a product evolve over time if its designers had a multiple personality disorder?”

Yesterday, at their media event, Apple introduced the latest in the line of iPod nanos. I’m sure the new nano is a fine device, a worthy successor to the previous generation. But come on!

One year the nano is long and skinny. The next year it looks almost like an iPod shuffle. A couple of years later it’s back to long and skinny. As if that is not enough, in between these flip-flops there was briefly a third basic shape: squat and fat.

Then there’s video support. Now you see it, now you don’t. One year, the nano doesn’t play video, the next year it does. Then video is removed. And now it’s back again.

Apple has never offered a clear rationale behind these shifts. They occur for no apparent purpose other than change for change’s sake.

Yet somehow, with each iteration, Apple wants to convince us that the latest offering is the “best design ever.” This is getting to be a really hard sell. Following the shifts in the nano feels more like watching a pendulum swing than forward progress.

I half expect that Apple will someday introduce a new nano as “the second, perhaps the third, most amazing nano we have ever made. The best one was three years ago.”

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