Top 5 Apple Stories of 2011

It’s that time. Time for my second annual Top 5 Apple Stories of Year. Although we’ve barely made it into December, I remain confident (hopeful?) that nothing will happen in the remaining weeks to nudge any of the selected stories from their respective spots.

[Note: How did I make my choices? You’ll find the judging criteria in my Top Apple Stories of the Year from last December. There is one change: Last year, I had separate lists for the Top 5 and Bottom 5. This year there is just one list, reflecting both the ups and downs of Apple’s year, with a bias towards the up.]

Top Stories of 2011

There should be no suspense as to what story is number one (hint: he introduced the Macintosh back in 1984). Regardless, we’ll count ‘em down: 

5. iPhone 4S and Siri

The iPhone 4S may go down in history as the most successful “disappointment” of all time. Within hours of the October 4th Apple Keynote introducing the iPhone 4S, the web was ablaze with blog postings pronouncing the device a “disappointment” or worse. Why? Because pundits expected more: more new features, a larger screen, a 4G network, a device named ‘iPhone 5.” Whatever. When these expectations (largely based on rumors that were never confirmed) were not met, the reaction of some was to dismiss the new iPhone as a loser.

A funny thing happened next. The iPhone 4S went on to break sales records, starting with over 4 million sold over the first weekend. This led to a web backlash, with pundits from the other side ridiculing those who initially predicted doom.

As for me, I did express disappointment with the Apple Keynote Special Event in general, but not with the iPhone 4S itself. I declared: “This is a significant upgrade….The iPhone 4S should do a great job of maintaining, and increasing, the popularity of the Apple’s premiere iOS device.” (Whew! Glad I dodged that bullet.)

Siri, Apple’s “voice-activated assistant”, remains the premiere new feature of the iPhone 4S. Currently, it’s only for the 4S. Either due to technological limitations or in an attempt to drive sales to the 4S (depending on your level of cynicism), Siri is not available on the iPhone 4 or the iPad 2.

Having enjoyed using Siri for the past two months, I stand by my initial assessment: “Siri will likely go down as the most significant advance in mobile computing this year.” When Siri works well, which is quite often, it works spectacularly well. I am still impressed each time I ask Siri to perform a task such as “Remind me to turn on the oven when I get home” and it just does it. If I ask Siri to check a fact, such as “Who won the Oscar for Best Actor in 1972?,” it comes back with the correct answer almost immediately (it was Gene Hackman, by the way). In these situations, my voice is a much faster and more convenient input method than typing, especially on an iPhone with its cramped virtual keyboard. Speaking into my iPhone can be awkward if I’m in a quiet environment and could disturb those who are nearby. And there are times when I don’t want people nearby to know what I’m asking Siri to do. On such occasions, the keyboard remains an essential alternative. Otherwise, it’s ask first, type second.

Siri is Apple technology at its grandest, science fiction made into reality, truly deserving one of Apple’s favorite adjective’s: magical. Siri’s only downside is that there remain many tasks currently beyond its reach. Too often, I ask a question and get an apology for an answer. That’s when I remind myself that Siri is still version 1.0 software (actually, not even that; it’s beta software). Not to worry. Siri will keep getting better, much better. I get goosebumps just imagining how great it will be a few years from now.

4. iCloud (and iOS 5)

iCloud represents another new Apple technology that will certainly become much better as it matures. For now, my impression of iCloud is not nearly as positive as it is for Siri. As I previous stated: While “iCloud is an impressive achievement…it is far from a shining example of ‘intuitively obvious.’” Generally, iCloud works as promised. The problem is that too often it’s too difficult to figure out exactly how it works. 

Still, once I got it up and running, iCloud has worked well for syncing contacts and calendar events, for automatic downloads of newly purchased apps across all of my devices, for Photo Stream, and for iTunes Match. Although not technically part of iCloud, I also welcome the related “PC Free” trend of iOS 5 — such as over-the-air iOS updates. Things have worked out less well with iWork document sharing.

iCloud is a major bet for Apple, requiring a huge investment in server hardware and related infrastructure. The transition of users moving their data from local storage to the Internet “cloud” is a trend that spans across all computing devices, not just those from Apple. It is definitely where the future is headed. iCloud is the critical linchpin of Apple’s foray into the clouds.

A bit lost in the shuffle here is iOS 5 itself. Don’t overlook it. The upgrade offers a host of commendable new features, starting with a great new Notification Center. I concluded: “iOS 5 is the most spectacular iOS upgrade since the original iPhone was released in 2007…There’s no downside here.”

3. iOS-ification of OS X Lion

iOS-ification refers to importing features to the Mac that were previously unique to iOS devices. Currently, this shift is most apparent in a host of features that are packaged into OS X 10.7 Lion — from Launchpad to full-screen apps (for an overview of all of Lion’s iOS-ification features, check out the slideshow for a talk I recently gave on the subject).

While iOS-ification has its merits, I don’t view it as an entirely good thing. In fact, I have serious reservations about this trend, as I have covered in previous articles such as: Lion Without the Finder, The Future of the Mac After Lion, and Understanding The Debate Over Apple’s Mac App Store Sandbox.

Good or bad, I believe these changes in Lion are only the beginning. Future versions of OS X will push the convergence with iOS even further. There are huge implications here for the future of the Mac. In the end, we may see a near unification of the two OS variations. As one consequence, this will likely mean the demise of products, such as the Mac Pro, that don’t fit within a consumer-focused agenda. If this happens, the Mac will have evolved into a very different, and far more closed, platform than it is today.

2. iPad 2

The iPad claimed the #1 spot in last year’s Top Apple Stories of the Year. This year, with the release of the iPad 2 in March, the iPad remains close to its prior pinnacle, hanging on to the #2 spot.

Last year, the story was all about the initial sensation created by the new device. Prior to its release, expectations were not high. Some had already dismissed the iPad as little more than an oversized iPod touch. Wrong again. The iPad went on to transform an industry that previously had had little or no success with netbooks, ultrabooks or tablets. The iPad came to define a suddenly booming tablet market — a market that barely existed before the iPad arrived on the scene. Garnering rave reviews, the iPad was Time’s Gadget of Year and Oprah’s Favorite Thing of all-time.

This year, it’s all about the competition. Or lack of it. Virtually every company with a stake in the game has tried its luck with a tablet. Prior to the iPad, there were no other tablets that looked anything like Apple’s product. Today, they almost all look like iPad clones. Even so, things have not worked out well for the competition. Hewlett-Packard killed its TouchPad within weeks of releasing it. RIM’s Playbook tablet continues its slide toward oblivion. And despite Samsung’s and Amazon’s best efforts to play catch-up, the iPad 2 remains the dominant player — and likely to only get stronger in the months ahead.

1. Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs died on October 5, 2011 — just one day after the launch of the iPhone 4S. Given that the people on stage knew about Steve’s grave condition, I can’t imagine how they made it through the event. Somehow, they did.

Steve Jobs’ death is beyond any doubt the Top Apple Story of the Year. It would be the Top Apple Story of the entire 2000’s century thus far. Steve Jobs’ death was the headline on virtually every newspaper and TV news show. He was on the cover of countless magazines over the next month. The amount of coverage on the web must have set some sort of record. There have been television specials and a best-selling biography. A major movie about Steve Jobs is already in the works.

Steve Jobs’ deteriorating health was a story that spanned the entire year — from his medical leave in January to his resignation as Apple CEO in August.

As repeatedly emphasized in the many tributes (I wrote two myself, one for Macworld and another on my personal site), Steve Jobs was the heart and soul of Apple. Apple’s incredible current financial success as well as all its signature products, from Macs to iPhones, would never have been achieved without him. Similarly, without Steve Jobs, Pixar might not have survived to create computer-animated films such as Toy Story and Finding Nemo.

Steve Jobs’ influence extends beyond Apple and Pixar. He is responsible for the transformation of several industries (not just computers, but music, movies, phones, and retail stores). He has changed the way our entire culture views and interacts with technology. It would be hard to overstate his significance.

However, as Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs makes clear, there was also a darker side to Steve Jobs. He could be incredibly demanding, uncompromising beyond the point where it made sense, denying the truth even to himself when it suited his goals, frank to the point of being cruel, and cold even to his closest friends and relatives. His obsessions with design and control were the catalysts for Apple’s biggest successes. But they also contributed to his biggest failures, including Apple’s troubles in 1985 that ultimately led to his ouster.

Steve Jobs was a complex figure. Yet, more than anything else, I remain impressed with how Steve Jobs could figure out what needed to be done and, perhaps most importantly, get it done. Even when met with skepticism or outright scorn from those within Apple, he would cut through the objections and move forward with his agenda. He further had the persuasive ability to get those outside of Apple to go along when needed (such as convincing music companies to support the iTunes Store, shocking Microsoft and just about everyone else at the time). That’s not to say he could never be persuaded to change his mind (as when he conceded to allow the iPod to work with Windows). But once he was committed to a path, it was almost impossible to stop him.

One way or the other, since his return in 1997, nothing happened at Apple without Jobs’ approval. And his approval was usually sufficient to assure that it happened. Where other companies might get mired down in endless committee meetings, months of market testing and a misguided emphasis on profit over innovation of great products, Steve would simply say: “This is what we’re going to do.” And so it would be. And in the end, as we now all know, he was usually right. It’s hard to imagine anyone else pulling this off.

I am confident that Apple will continue to be successful in the years ahead. The company retains an incredible collection of talented people. But it will not be the same. It can’t be. Steve Jobs is irreplaceable. He will be missed — by Apple, by the technology industry, by all of us.