If you look at Apple's new lineup of iPhones and Macs, you'll probably struggle to see the difference from last year's models. They're roughly the same size and shape. This year's iPhone 12 family is a bit boxier than 2019's iPhone 11, though there is a new, smaller iPhone 12 Mini. The same goes for Mac exteriors. It's hard to pinpoint changes. But inside, Apple has made some of the most significant alterations to its devices in years. And Apple watchers believe they'll have lasting repercussions.
Those changes are 5G wireless for the iPhone and the introduction of its own processor for the Mac. Apple has said these technologies will mean faster, more reliable connections for the iPhone and better battery life, performance and portability for Mac computers. The interior changes are designed to help Apple devices stand out from a sea of similar lower-profile aluminum and glass competitors.
"Advancements of this magnitude only come from making bold changes," Apple CEO Tim Cook said during one of Apple's events announcing the changes. "We've come so far for a device that's so important to our daily lives," he said at another.
Whether Apple's right, and its big internal changes remake how we use its devices, is yet to be seen. Every Apple product has a typical cycle of leaks, hype and then tons of questions after its announcement. Did Apple change enough? Did it screw up by not including a specific technology, or making a long-requested change? Did it push too hard removing this or that feature?
Analysts say anecdotal evidence suggests that Apple may have another hit on its hands with the new iPhones and Mac computers. Reviewers, including CNET's Patrick Holland, said the iPhone 12 is one of the best phones out there. And Apple's new $699 Mac Mini, $999 MacBook Air and $1,299 MacBook Pro powered by its new M1 chip performed as well as or better than earlier models, which have been powered by chips made by Intel for the past 14 years.
All these changes may have seemingly guaranteed a strong holiday shopping season and year ahead for Apple. But it, like all other companies around the world, has had to deal with fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected more than 62 million people and killed more than 1.5 million since it was first detected last year. In its wake, Apple and its peers have struggled to maintain manufacturing to meet demand for their products, as well as keep staff safe by closing offices and stores as local case counts ebb and flow.
In many ways, the coronavirus has made many people even more dependent on tech titans, including Apple, to help them work and communicate remotely in an effort to slow the disease's spread. But the economic toll of all this disruption has left tens of millions of people out of work and with shrinking bank accounts.
Apple's shifted its businesses to respond to the pandemic, donating millions of face shields to medical professionals, working with Google to create a to anonymously warn others they may have infected and working with cellular carriers and its own Apple Card program to offer no-interest payment plans for its devices.
What all that will mean for the tech giant or any of us is yet to be seen. For now, Apple's focusing on its devices. Many iPhones are back-ordered to the end of the year, according to Apple's website, and some of its computers ordered today won't be delivered to customers until nearly Christmas.
Here are some other things that happened to Apple so far this year.
Apple adds much-requested features to iPhones
Every year, Apple typically offers new software to go with its newest iPhones, iPads and Macs. The new iterations of iOS, iPadOS and MacOS, as they're called, are offered for free to people with devices going back several years as well.
This year, Apple focused on refinement for iPhones with its iOS 14 software, offering features like little programs for the home screen, called widgets, that display things such as the weather, calendar appointments, to-do lists and music you're listening to alongside your list of apps. It also made its Messenger program easier to navigate, offered picture-in-picture so you can watch videos while doing something else on your phone, and made incoming phone calls and its Siri voice assistant less intrusive when you're doing something else on the phone.
Apple reworks its computer software
Apple also changed the design of MacOS, this year called Big Sur, making it look more like what you see on iPhones, with more colorful icons, similar settings programs and similar improvements to its Messages app as the one for the iPhone. Apple also said Big Sur works with both older Intel-powered Macs and new M1-powered Macs, and that many of the programs that run on the older computers will easily run on the new ones too.
Apple also offered a way to use iPhone and iPad apps in its new Macs, opening the potential to many more apps becoming available for the company's laptops and desktops. Apple's computers make up nearly 18% of PCs being used today, according to StatCounter. Meanwhile, its iPhones make up more than 26% of phones in use today.
Apple expands subscriptions
Last year, Apple introduced a new suite of subscription services, an offering it said would help it stand out from the pack of other phones and tablets out there. Those included the $5 per month Apple TV Plus service with movies and TV shows the company funded, such as The Morning Show comedy. It also announced the $10 per month Apple News Plus, with access to more than 300 magazines and newspapers including Time, Vanity Fair and the San Francisco Chronicle. The company also had a new subscription game service called Apple Arcade, with access to over 100 titles, for $5 per month.
This year, the company introduced two additions. The first is Apple Fitness Plus, a $10 program with Apple-employed instructors creating new workouts each week. Peloton, the company behind the popular in-home workout bicycle and live workout classes, offers a similar service, which costs $13 per month.
The service Apple introduced was a bundle for all its iCloud storage and services called Apple One. With that, starting at $15 per month, customers can get access to Apple Music, Apple TV plus, Apple Arcade and 50GB of iCloud storage.
Apple revamps iPad Air
In September, Apple announced a revamped version of its popular iPad Air tablet, starting at $599. The device borrowed many design cues from the iPad Pro, which starts at $799, though without some flourishes like face unlock.
"It's become my favorite iPad," CNET Editor at Large Scott Stein said in his review of the device. "In fact, I've mostly forgotten about the iPad Pro. The Air is basically as good, for less." CNET named the iPad Air an Editor's Choice in November.
Apple Watch SE and iPhone SE offer more for less, too
It's not often you hear "Apple" and "cheap" in the same sentence, but the $399 iPhone SE, released in April, became surprisingly popular among reviewers. They said the "classic" design, with the thumbprint unlock instead of Face ID, slightly less-capable cameras and lower-quality screen is one of the best values for the money Apple offers.
"It has an attractive price, fantastic battery life, great rear camera, A13 processor, water resistance and support for wireless charging," CNET's Patrick Holland said in his review. "The SE is not only a wonderful iPhone, but one of the best budget phones you can currently buy."
The Apple Watch SE, announced in September, followed a similar tack. It was essentially last year's Apple Watch Series 5 without flourishes like an always-on screen and an electrocardiogram (ECG) function. If those didn't matter to you, the $279 price point put it at least $120 below its more expensive cousins. "If you're an iPhone user and have been debating whether or not to get an Apple Watch, this is the one you should get," CNET's Vanessa Hand Orellana wrote in her review. CNET named the device an Editor's Choice.
Apple learns how to do pandemic events
When Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference was scheduled for June, many tech watchers -- including myself -- were curious about how it would go. By that point, Microsoft had held a poorly received event for its then-upcoming Xbox Series X console. Soon after, Sony held a competing event for its PlayStation 5 that was very well received by fans.
Would Apple be able to translate its slick stage presentations to the virtual world? Would its announcements garner as much hype without thousands of fans and employees clapping off stage and from the audience?
"While it cannot possibly feel the same in here without you," Apple CEO Tim Cook said at the outset of his June keynote speech, "this year we're delivering the conference in a whole new way to all of you around the world, directly to your home."
In the prerecorded video, company executives took turns passing the screen around to announce new features to Apple's software and hardware. And at the end of the event, pretty much everyone agreed that, yes, Apple was able to hold a compelling event, and with a level of polish that stood out from the crowd.
"Apple excels in its video and graphics," said longtime analyst Tim Bajarin of Creative Strategies, who has attended hundreds of Apple events, shortly after the June developer event. "This will probably be the most effective WWDC Apple has ever had."
In August, Epic Games, maker of the cultural phenomenon Fortnite, decided to go to war with Apple.
The company, whose last-man-standing battle royale game has turned it into a multibillion-dollar behemoth, started the fight when it purposely broke a rule regarding how money is handled in its app.
Fortnite is free to download but charges for "V-Bucks," optional in-game tokens players can use to buy different cosmetic looks for characters. Apple and Google both stipulate that all apps offered through their respective app stores must pay commissions of up to 30% on purchases made through their systems. Epic chose to circumvent those rules, offering players a discount if they agreed to pay a different way.
Apple and Google both banned Fortnite from their app stores, and Epic responded with an ad campaign, #FreeFortnite, and with lawsuits accusing the two tech giants of hypocrisy.
"Epic Games has defied the App Store monopoly," Epic said in a video remake of Apple's famous 1984 Macintosh Super Bowl ad, which invokes the dystopian novel of the same name. In Epic's version, posted online and in its Fortnite video game after the suit was filed, the developer fashioned itself fighting the evil overseer. Epic said its game, which counts more than 250 million players around the world, had was being blocked from over a billion devices worldwide.
The two have been trading blows ever since, including in initial court hearings, where the presiding judge has encouraged both companies to settle their differences on their own.
Apple said it would welcome Fortnite back into the app store if it removes the offending payments system. Epic says it shouldn't have to follow rules it believes are illegal.
The lawsuit is slated to begin next year.
Epic isn't the only entity unhappy with Apple. The European Union announced an investigation into Apple's in-app purchase rules, driven in part by complaints from Sweden-based music app Spotify. The EU also said it would investigation Apple's strict control over the NFC communication chips used for Apple Pay and whether the company should be forced to allow competing apps access to those chips. Currently, Apple Pay is the only payment app that can use the iPhone's NFC chips for payments.
"It appears that Apple obtained a 'gatekeeper' role when it comes to the distribution of apps and content to users of Apple's popular devices," EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said in a statement when announcing the investigation in June. "We need to ensure that Apple's rules do not distort competition in markets where Apple is competing with other app developers, for example with its music streaming service Apple Music or with Apple Books."
More antitrust concerns
The EU wasn't the only government entity targeting Apple. CEO Cook was asked to participate in a congressional hearing on antitrust in tech in July. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos also participated.
"Lawmakers came prepared," CNET senior reporter Ben Fox Rubin wrote at the time. "They showed up with internal corporate emails and the results of interviews with smaller companies that said they were harmed by anti-competitive practices. In many cases, the tech bosses simply rejected the premise of the questions, which almost uniformly portrayed the companies as monopolistic, ruthless or both."
Apple faced questions over a series of emails collected by the committee during its more than year-long investigation into the tech industry. Among them were debates about the company's strong control over the repair market for its devices, forcing many technicians to source screens and other parts from other companies rather than Apple's suppliers.
Apple starts removing adapters and headphones
When Apple announced its newest Apple Watches, the company said it wouldn't include a wall-plug power adapter in the box. Instead, the watches would just come with a charging cord.
"Sometimes, it's not what we make, but what we don't make that counts," Lisa P. Jackson, Apple's vice president of environment, policy and social initiatives, said at Apple's announcement event in September. She added that Apple knows its customers are accumulating USB adapters and that making millions of them "consumes resources and adds to our carbon footprint."
A month later, she announced that the company's new iPhone 12 headsets also wouldn't include a power adapter, nor headphones, in the box. As a result, the box for the iPhone 12 will also be smaller and lighter, meaning that Apple can fit 70% more items on a shipping pallet, Jackson said.
Additionally, Apple said there are more than 700 million EarPods with lightning connectors and 2 billion Apple power adapters out in the world. Apple argued adding more to the pile isn't worth it.
Some Apple-watchers were frustrated by the move, calling it a cash grab to charge some customers even more for their devices. The power adapter and headphones cost $19 each from the company.
No matter how you feel, Apple suggested this will be a trend, rather than a one-off decision.
"We hope others will follow, making this impact even bigger for our planet," Jackson said of the changes Apple made to reduce carbon emissions.
In 2017, internet sleuths stumbled upon data that seemed to prove an urban legend that Apple purposely slows downs its iPhones just as new ones are coming out in an effort to force people into an upgrade.
Apple, which had dismissed the conspiracy theory for years, admitted it had added new features to its iPhone software designed to slow down the phone if it's sucking too much energy from an older, degraded battery. The scandal became known as "batterygate."
"Our goal is to deliver the best experience for customers, which includes overall performance and prolonging the life of their devices," Apple said in an initial statement on Dec. 20, 2017, as it faced mounting criticism.
Critics cried foul, and just over a week later, Apple formally apologized while insisting it acted in the best interest of customers. It also offered a $29 battery replacement for a limited time to anyone who asked, rather than charging the typical $79. And it added features to its iOS software that better explained how iPhone batteries work and gave people the choice to preserve battery life or push their phone's performance.
"We have never -- and would never -- do anything to intentionally shorten the life of any Apple product, or degrade the user experience to drive customer upgrades. Our goal has always been to create products that our customers love, and making iPhones last as long as possible is an important part of that," Apple said at the time. "We know that some of you feel Apple has let you down. We apologize."
Still, lawsuits and investigations followed. In March of this year, Apple agreed to pay up to $500 million to settle a class-action lawsuit, in which the company agreed to pay customers $25 per iPhone, with a minimum payout of $310 million. Then, in November, Apple agreed to pay $113 million to settle an investigation by 34 states and the District of Columbia over batterygate.
In both settlements, Apple insisted it was not admitting any wrongdoing.