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2015: Apple's year in beta

2015: Apple's year in beta


Everything needs more focus and more time

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The Gizmodo headline last week was blunt, in the way that the best Giz headlines are blunt: Everything Apple Introduced This Year Kinda Sucked. It's worth reading; it is surprisingly easy to make the argument that everything on Apple's huge list of new products and features this year sucked a little bit.

But that's not actually true. All of Apple's products this year were just fine. You could settle yourself totally within the Apple ecosystem and use Apple Music and Apple News on your iPhone while taking Live Photos and you would be just fine. You wouldn't have the best time, but you wouldn't have the worst one, either. It would just be fine.

And that's really the issue. We're not used to Apple being just fine. We're used to Apple being wildly better than the competition, or sometimes much worse, but always being ahead of the curve on some significant axis. But what we got in 2015 was an Apple that released more products than ever, all of which felt incomplete in extremely meaningful ways — ways that meant that their products were just fine, and often just the same as everyone else's.

every new Apple product or feature released in 2015 was essentially in beta

I would go so far as to say every new Apple product or feature released in 2015 was essentially in beta. Apple released a lot of big new platforms that, by themselves, weren't nearly complete. Apple needed — expected, really — its vast army of dedicated and passionate third-party developers to come up with killer apps for things like the Apple Watch and iPad Pro. And when it wasn't releasing new platforms, Apple was adding new features to existing platforms like iOS in an attempt to create sticky new user behaviors which would reinforce their dominant status in the market — new features that all need far more time to develop into those powerful lock-in mechanisms.

To get a sense of what I mean, just consider the first iPhone, which introduced a new platform with two incredible killer apps: the Safari browser (which was revolutionary in 2007) and Maps. The next iPhone introduced the App Store with a laundry list of additional killer apps, and you know what happened next — the entire tech industry turned upside down. And eventually Apple introduced iMessage, a platform-level feature that creates and reinforces an extraordinary amount of value if everyone you know is an iPhone user — those blue bubbles mean something in the culture now.

And that's really the story of Apple in 2015. After years of promising investors new products, the implication over and over again was that the iPhone changed the world, and it would happen again with another new product. And while the company delivered on dazzle and hype — sometimes far more than usual — the products themselves often felt searching, waiting to be imbued with reason.

New platforms in search of a killer app

Apple watch stock

Apple Watch
The Apple Watch is by far Apple's most important new platform bet — it has the most potential and the most potential scale. But after launching in April with obviously incomplete software, the October release of WatchOS 2 did little to push the device forward. (Most people I know who are still wearing the Watch have basically turned most of its features off.) Without a robust app store, the Apple Watch offers little more than notifications and fitness tracking, and there are other devices that do a much better (and much more discreet) job of fitness tracking. That leaves telling the time and notifications as killer apps, and both of those could still be vastly improved. It will be shocking if the next version of the Watch doesn't have an always-on display, you know?

When I reviewed the Watch in April, I advised people against spending money on what it looked like until Apple could clearly articulate what it was for. With rumors of another Watch coming in March, that challenge should be first on the list.

The Watch's killer apps are telling the time and notifications — and it could be better at both

Apple TV
Apple TV is another huge platform bet — Apple is all-in on the idea that the future of TV is apps, if its massive advertising campaign is to be believed. But I can't get over the feeling that the Apple TV was rushed to market in radically different form after Apple's attempts to launch a "skinny bundle" streaming TV service fell through. Siri didn't work with Music when it arrived; the iPhone remote app hadn't been updated to work with the new device. (Both are fixed now.) Simple problems, like having to repeatedly re-enter the same cable company login and password to multiple streaming apps, aren't solved. The Siri touch remote can be finicky and strange, and a traditional D-pad works better for the core streaming TV features. App Store search and discovery is a series of question marks waiting to be filled in. The thing just isn't finished.

And yet the Apple TV is by far the best streaming TV box on the market because it's a true computing platform in a way that the Roku and others are not. You can feel how much more powerful it is just by using it; the potential is almost overwhelming. But ported iPhone games and slightly faster HBO Go and Netflix apps aren't going to disrupt television — an entirely new kind of TV experience has to do that.

PS. Do you know anyone who's seriously into Plex? Make them get an Apple TV; it's a revolution. Piracy is the Apple TV's killer app right now.

Apple Music
I'm putting Apple Music in the platform category because it's not just a feature of OS X and iOS — it's on Android as well, and it'll work with Sonos soon. It's a complete music platform, where artists like Taylor Swift can launch exclusive concert videos alongside exclusive interviews with Zane Lowe on Beats 1 and snackable social content on Connect.

Apple Music is, well, kind of a mess

But Apple Music is, well, kind of a mess. It has multiple priorities and multiple personalities, and multiple points of failure. It wants to be everything to all people, instead of a focused experience that connects the dots between purchasing music from iTunes and streaming music from a subscription service. There is a huge — huge! — opportunity here, but Apple Music is entirely too hazy and complicated to capitalize on it right now.

iPad Pro
You can reasonably argue against the iPad Pro in the new platform category, but hear me out: the size and pen / keyboard capabilities of the iPad Pro are designed to unlock a new set of developers and customers that the traditional iPad can't reach, and that market will eventually mean that the iPad Pro is an entirely new platform unto itself. It's exciting! But it's strange that the Apple Pencil is an optional accessory with the Pro, instead of something developers can count on and build around. It's also strange that Apple didn't build a single first-party app that shows off the power of the large screen and Pencil, and it's further strange that Apple's (expensive) keyboard case is so mediocre. And developers are struggling to figure out how to make real money selling pro apps in the App Store — a problem so deep that Apple just shuffled its executive ranks to put Phil Schiller in charge of the App Store.

There's a chance we'll all be using huge iPads as our primary computers one day, but to get there the iPad Pro has to do something so much better than a MacBook that all the things it does worse seem irrelevant. What is that thing?

New platform features in search of sticky user behavior

3D Touch
Walt Mossberg noted that 3D Touch has mostly been a disappointment since it arrived on the iPhone 6S in September, but there are rumbles of progress — we rounded up a few interesting apps last week. But there's very little about 3D Touch in the ecosystem right now that justifies buying an iPhone all by itself, and certainly nothing that creates a sticky user pattern that locks you into Apple's ecosystem. It's right click for your phone. Hopefully in 2016 it becomes something bigger.

Live Photos

Live Photos could have been so great! They're so fun when you realize you have a little accidental video, and they're super fun for photos of kids and pets. It's basically your phone, making GIFs for you. Who doesn't love GIFs?

Live Photos have so much potential but they're hidden away

But Apple gave Live Photos a weird proprietary format, buried it behind an obscure set of interface elements, and didn't give it the ability to export GIFs. (Did you know you can share a Live Photo to Facebook natively? I did not, and it seems no one else did either.) I am legitimately disappointed I don't see more Live Photos in the world, but until they stop being so hidden and wonky it doesn't seem likely.

Apple News
Like Music, you could argue that News belongs in the platform category — it is a publishing platform, after all. But I think it's really just a feature to enhance the overall iOS newsreading experience in a world where the mobile web sucks, not a huge platform bet. Apple isn't sharing too many stats, but early indications are that Apple News traffic isn't great, and the navigation patterns inside the app are all over the place. (If you're reading an article inside Apple News and click on a link to another article, you don't see the Apple News version — it opens an in-app browser instead of sending you to Safari. Insanity.) There is a world where clicking on Apple News to get a customized list of headlines every morning is a defining feature of the iPhone experience, but this is not yet that world.

One nice surprise

Everyone loves the MacBook! You can worry that it's underpowered because of its weak Core M processor, but I've watched it slowly win over a number of Verge staffers in the past few months. It's tiny, it's beautiful, and OS X is so well optimized for it that it can run pro apps like Lightroom and not let you down. Looking at the Intel roadmap, it's hard to imagine an updated version coming out for a while yet, but man, the next iteration of the MacBook is going to be a generation-defining laptop.

New MacBook 2015 images

If you're an Apple fan looking at this other list of products and worrying, I would suggest looking at the MacBook to calm your mind — when the company settles into the groove of refinement and polish, it still puts out products that blow the industry away. The MacBook isn't in beta — it's a complete thought about the future of laptops.

2015 was a year of big risky bets for Apple

But 2015 wasn't a year in the groove for Apple — it was a year of big, risky bets that need time to play out. But the rest of the industry isn't sitting still — and some of these bets will come due in 2016.

The Verge reviews Apple

For more from Verge Video, check out all of our Apple review videos from 2015 in this YouTube playlist, which includes the Apple Watch and the iPad Pro. Be sure to subscribe to The Verge's YouTube channel for more, and check out our archives while you're there to see How the iPad Pro compares to the Surface Pro 4.