For Apple, 2010 was a phenomenal year; there's really no other way to put it. What makes Apple's big year -- it surpassed Microsoft's market valuation to become the most valuable technology company -- even bigger is that it caps off a phenomenal decade. Just 10 years ago, many people were still predicting the company's demise.
Here's a quick look at how Apple moved ahead in 2010, and what that portends for 2011.
A quiet start
January started relatively quietly for Apple. There were rumors about the company making an iPhone OS tablet, but there were also rumors about an iPhone Nano. The company had had a good holiday quarter, but nothing overly spectacular seemed on the horizon as 2009 ended.
As it has in the past, Apple all but ignored the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. Apple has avoided the massive electronics and gadget trade show for years, often preferring to make its announcements at the annual Macworld Expo in San Francisco. But 2010 was different. Apple had announced the year before that it was pulling out of Macworld, leaving many to wonder whether the show could even survive. (It did, but in a more low-key format with a conference/training focus, which was arguably more valuable for attendees. This year's Conference and Expo takes place Jan. 26-29.)
The iPad arrives
Just after CES, Apple invited select members of the media to its Cupertino, Calif., headquarters for a special event: the announcement of the iPad. Even before CEO Steve Jobs took the wraps of the new tablet, there had been a building media frenzy about the rumored tablet. After it was unveiled, the iPad frenzy continued, and the tablet dominated headlines for weeks leading up to its April launch.
As is the case with any new Apple product, that launch meant long lines at every Apple store; more than 1 million iPads sold in less than a month. The tablet almost immediately found homes in schools and colleges, and among certain professionals: doctors and nurses, salespeople of all types, news anchors, business executives and politicians. Norway's prime minister even relied on an iPad to manage his country's affairs while he was stranded in New York City by the Icelandic volcano.
Along the way, the iPad essentially created a new tablet market. Though Windows tablets had existed for years, they were part of a very niche market. Microsoft actually introduced Windows 7 tablets at CES, but many were delayed or canceled after the iPad's announcement, which is most likely why Microsoft will be introducing them again at CES next month. Manufacturers began jumping on Google's Android operating system as a platform for iPad rivals like the Samsung Galaxy Tab.
The A4 chip
A significant feature of the iPad wasApple's first custom-designed chip, the A4. The processor was based on an ARM Cortex 8 and incorporated system-on-a-chip design features, maximizing performance for Apple hardware and the operating system. It also reduced component needs, freeing up much-needed space.
Not surprisingly, the A4 chip later found its way into both the iPhone 4 and the iPod Touch.
Not resting on its laurels, Apple unveiled the next upgrade to the iPhone OS, which was renamed iOS after the iPad's launch. Thenew operating system included a lot of important features that users had wanted: folders for organizing app icons; multitasking between apps (or at least a set of APIs that gave users the core features of multitasking); custom homescreen backgrounds; hundreds of new APIs for developers that enabled much better integration with device hardware and core OS features; a major revision of the Mail app that included threaded messages and better attachment handling; support for calendar and contact syncing with all mail services (GMail, Yahoo Mail, and IMAP servers); Game Center for social/online gaming; Apple's own in-app ad service, called iAd; support for external Bluetooth keyboards; and a slew of new enterprise support features that delivered over-the-air deployment, security and management tools to IT departments.
In one fell swoop, iOS 4 became second only to RIM's BlackBerry platform in terms of capabilities.
iOS 4 on the iPhone 3G
But iOS 4 wasn't all roses for Apple or for iPhone users. The company continued selling the iPhone 3G through June, just before the iOS 4 launch. But the iPhone 3G (two years old in design and hardware at that point) couldn't take advantage of several iOS 4 advances, including multitasking and homescreen backgrounds. Worse yet was the experience for users who upgraded anyway: iOS 4 slowed iPhone 3G performance to a crawl, and many owners called it unusable.
Unfortunately, Apple offered no downgrade options, though hacks did allow downgrading for users willing to try them. At first, Apple denied that there was any problem, though it did eventually admit to issues with iOS 4 on older hardware. It wasn't until September, with the release of iOS 4.1 that the performance issues were addressed.
The iPhone 4
The iPhone 4 was a major step forward from previous iPhone models in several ways: It was based on the A4 chip and offered much better performance; it included more system memory; it introduced Apple's amazingly rich and clear Retina display; it offered both front- and rear-facing cameras for video chats; it bumped up the rear camera's resolution; it included an LED flash; and it allowed for full on-device video editing with a mobile version of Apple's iMovie. It also sported glass panels on the front and back and a thinner design than any previous model.
The iPhone 4 practically jumped off store shelves. And yes, there were lines at Apple stores on the day it was released.
Unfortunately, the iPhone 4's impressive new design came with a big problem. Apple used a metal ribbon to enclose the iPhone 4's edges and placed the antennas for cellular, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth signals in the metal band. While this made for a thinner, lighter handset, it also led to serious signal problems when the phone was held in a certain way.
Apple refused to acknowledge the problem at first, telling people to hold the iPhone 4 differently. The company eventually agreed to provide all users with a bumper case that prevented contact between a user's skin and the cellular antenna -- but not before a media fiasco erupted. Even an Apple press conference (complete with a tour for journalists of its secret mobile testing lab) wasn't without controversy, since the company insisted all mobile phones had similar problems if held in a certain way -- a claim disputed by most other manufacturers.
The problem, which was most apparent in areas where signal strength was already low, did little to damage sales, however.
The Mac-less WWDC
Apple also shocked its developer community, as well as many Mac IT professionals, by limiting its annual developer conference to just iOS sessions and tracks. Normally, the annual Worldwide Developers Conference serves to educate developers and IT pros about advances in both Mac OS X and iOS, offers attendees a chance to network and get answers directly from Apple engineers, and spells out a road map of Apple's operating system and hardware plans. (The look at those plans is particularly important for IT folks, since Apple doesn't publish product road maps like other companies).
The conference was a huge success, selling out faster than ever before. Mac Tech magazine sponsored its own Mac developer and IT conference in October, which also turned out to be a success. But it left many wondering about Apple's ultimate plans for Mac development and for sales to businesses and other organizations.
The end of the Xserve era
In October, Apple further worried enterprises that have sizable Mac investments by canceling its line of rack mount servers. The Xserve was Apple's first (and only) rack mount server. For the better part of a decade, it accompanied Mac OS X Server and was put into use by many businesses and schools, big and small. It offered some features unavailable on any other Mac, including redundant power supplies, lights-out management and easy access on the rack for repairs and upgrades. Apple also offered kits containing the major Xserve components for quick replacement to reduce customer downtime. And the Xserve was one of only two options -- the other being the Mac Pro -- from Apple for Fibre-channel networks that could be used to connect to Apple's Xsan clustered file system.
The Xserve was a true workhorse as a general-purpose server, particularly when integrated with Apple's native directory system, Open Directory, and its mass deployment tools: NetBoot, NetInstall, NetRestore and multi/unicast Apple Software Restore. It also was used for media services with Apple's Final Cut Server and the Podcast Producer feature of Mac OS X Server, as well as in scientific computing clusters. As a result, many Mac-based organizations as well as some multiplatform environments came to depend on the device.
The cancellation of the Xserve (a move that, ironically, was announced during the MacTech conference) raised a lot of questions about Apple's enterprise intentions, particularly with Mac OS X Server, which Apple now appears to be positioning as a small-to-midsize-business system running on either the Mac Mini Server or Mac Pro hardware.
Enterprise: It's about the device
Canceling the Xserve pretty much ruled Apple out of the enterprise server market, where it never had a strong presence anyway, but it didn't end the company's enterprise strategy. Instead, Apple focused on integrating its end-user products with enterprise technologies. There were many examples of this. Among other things, Apple introduced enterprise management features in iOS 4, hired iPad salespeople with an enterprise focus, expanded its online enterprise resources and made them more accessible, highlighted its products' built-in compatibility with other enterprise solutions -- Active Directory, Windows file/print sharing and Exchange support, for instance -- and promoted third-party enterprise solutions for both Mac and iOS.
It's worth noting that Apple has begun to realize that small and midsize businesses are an ideal market for its products. In addition to pointing those organizations to Mac OS X Server and the Mac Mini Server, Apple created a fairly extensive Mac business Web site for that audience. It also began hosting business-themed events in its stores, added business solutions experts to the ranks of its retail staff, created a business-oriented version of its online stores, and continued to promote the Apple Consultants Network as a resource.
As usual, Apple revamped its iPod lineup in September. The new line included a return to the popular iPod Shuffle form factor (one of the few times Apple has moved back to a previous design based on customer reactions) and introduced the new all-touchscreen iPod Nano. The new design is more compact and omits the camera and video playback of the previous Nano. But it well may bring back the watch (or at least watch band) as a fashion accessory.
New Apple TV
Along with the new iPods, Apple revamped its set-top box. The new Apple TV, unveiled Sept. 1, was one-fourth the size of its predecessor and shifted from being essentially a low-powered Mac to being an iOS device. The black Apple TV omitted any onboard storage in favor of streaming, and it was a vision of simplicity compared to most home electronics. It offered built-in support for streaming Netflix content, and it cost just $99. Although Apple couldn't wrangle subscription content agreements from the networks and studios, it did get some concessions for renting and streaming content.
The new Apple TV entered a crowded set-top box field, but it seems to have already made a mark for itself -- something that can't be said about Google's Google TV platform.
A new version of iTunes accompanied the new iPods and Apple TV and offered Apple's first attempt at a social network, Ping. Based around music, Ping is a decent service, but its lack of integration with Facebook has hampered its growth. However, updates have made Ping more attractive, particularly its recent ability to post information to a user's Twitter account.
New MacBook Air
Apple's update of the MacBook Air borrowed a lot of hardware innovation from the iPad, including the use of flash memory for storage and a custom built-in battery that fills most of the Air's case design. All components, including the flash memory (which is directly attached to the motherboard without relying on traditional hard drive connectivity options), are compressed into a minimal wedge-shaped form factor that's thinner and lighter than that of the previous Air.
The result: a small, incredibly light notebook with lots of battery life. The downside to the design is that the MacBook Air is the least powerful Mac on the market, although it's still capable of most basic and common tasks, particularly the ones you'd perform on the go.
Verizon in the wings?
Ever since the first iPhone was announced with AT&T as the exclusive U.S. carrier, there have been rumors of a Verizon iPhone. One challenge was that Verizon's CDMA infrastructure wasn't compatible with the GSM-based iPhone. GSM did offer Apple massive global opportunities, since most international carriers rely on GSM technology rather than CDMA, but there are some major CDMA markets that Apple could tap, particularly in Asia.
However, reports that Apple is testing a CDMA iPhone have grown louder throughout the year. Some Apple job postings have even mentioned experience with CDMA engineering. All that, plus Verizon's launch of LTE 4G service, has also fueled speculation that any Verizon iPhone could be an LTE model set to launch early in 2011. An analyst report also said that negotiations between the two companies are ongoing and that Verizon was actually offering to pay Apple to keep Sprint and T-Mobile from being able to sell iPhones.
The speculation reached new heights after Verizon stores began selling Wi-Fi iPads (along with a special iPad/MiFi bundle) in October at the same time AT&T stores began selling the 3G iPads. Even more recently, iPad-related job posts on Apple's site have referenced Verizon specifically, as well as CDMA engineering experience.
No one's exactly sure what the agreement between Apple and AT&T states, or whether it has ever been modified from its initial five-year exclusivity arrangement. It's likely that if Verizon offers the iPhone and/or iPad with 3G (or perhaps 4G) service, that Apple will continue to sell devices with service on AT&T.
Either way, it seems safe to assume 2011 will feature some Verizon news for Apple.
2011, Lion, and the Mac App Store
As Apple enters 2011, it leaves behind a record-breaking year in which it transformed the mobile computing landscape. It wasn't a perfect year, but the positives for Apple far outweighed -- and will outlast -- the negatives. Going into 2011, the biggest expectation is a deal with Verizon, but that isn't the only one.
For one thing, there will be a new iPad. Whether it has all the rumored features -- front and rear cameras, FaceTime, an SD card slot, mini-USB port or Retina display -- remains unknown (though the Retina display seems unlikely). It's also doubtful that Apple will offer a 7-in. model, as some rumors suggest. A release date isn't known either. But it seems certain that Apple will try to maintain its lead in what looks to be an increasingly crowded tablet market.
In October, Apple previewed the next version of Mac OS X. Dubbed Lion, Mac OS X 10.7 will take several cues from Apple's iOS development, including a Mac App Store that's slated to open Jan. 6; a focus on full-screen apps; support for additional multitouch gestures; an iOS homescreen-styled launcher called Launchpad; broad use of auto-save and auto-restore in apps; and a feature called Mission Control that combines several existing Mac OS X interface components (Dashboard, Exposé and Spaces). Not much else is known about Lion, but it seems clear that it will be a major update and that there will be additional features that Apple has yet to reveal.
It's due out in the summer of 2011, with the gentle reminder that summer doesn't end until Sept. 23.
Then there's that data center that Apple built in North Carolina and already plans to double in size. Could it be the home of a future cloud-based version of iTunes, Apple's own cloud computing solution built on the iWork.com beta, or something else entirely? Something tells me we'll know the answer long before this time next year.
All in all, I expect 2011 to be an exciting time for Mac, iPhone, and iPad users, and I have no doubt that Steve Jobs has more than one or two surprises up the sleeve of his black turtleneck.
Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and technology consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. He has been a Computerworld columnist since 2003 and is a frequent contributor to Peachpit.com. Faas is also the author of iPhone for Work (Apress 2009). You can find out more about him at www.ryanfaas.com and follow him on Twitter (@ryanfaas).