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5 things Apple got right in 2019—and 5 it got wrong

Apple had no serious scandals in 2019 and stayed out of the trade war. But it missed some opportunities on products and privacy.

5 things Apple got right in 2019—and 5 it got wrong
Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks onstage during a product launch event at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, California, on September 10, 2019. [Photo: JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images]

In recent years, Apple has become a more cautious company. Maybe even a more boring one. It’s evolved from producing world-changing tech products to selling cloud-based services that run on more than a billion Apple devices active in the wild.

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This year, Apple proved masterful at staying out of the way of powerful external forces such as the techlash and the trade war. Serious self-inflicted wounds akin to the “antennagate” and Apple Maps V.1 of yesteryear were minimal. So writing about what the company got right and wrong is mostly an exercise in calling out areas where it performed beyond expectations—both in its product and its policy moves—and where it didn’t go nearly far enough when it could have.

Here’s what Apple got right and wrong in 2019.

Good: Apple’s return to camera leadership

For many of us, the camera is the most important feature of a smartphone. Many of the apps we’re used to—especially social ones—already rely heavily on the camera, and apps will continue using the camera in more creative and important ways. So it’s important that Apple keep delivering the cutting edge in camera tech.

But during 2018, Apple’s iPhone line, which consisted of the iPhones XR, XS, and XS Max, seemed to lag behind the camera systems on other flagship devices from companies like Samsung and Google. The XS and XS Max still had the dual rear camera setup that came with the iPhone 7, which had a 12-megapixel wide-angle lens and a 12-megapixel telephoto lens with 2X optical zoom.

This year Apple got its camera groove back. Its iPhone 11 line introduced a three-camera setup on the back of the phone. These included a 12-megapixel wide-angle lens, a 12-megapixel telephoto lens, and a 12-megapixel “ultra wide” lens. So the cameras offered three very distinct ways to frame a shot. The system also offered Night Site, a way to shoot far less grainy photos in low-light situations, a slicker answer to Google’s Night Mode from last year.

Apple wasn’t the first out with a three-camera system. Huawei’s Mate 20 Pro was the first in 2018, and Samsung and others added three-camera systems in 2019. Apple’s edge is in the integration of the software with the camera hardware, and in how the three cameras on the back of the iPhone work together.

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Bad: Siri and HomePod have stagnated

While other tech companies’ virtual assistants keep getting smarter and more capable, Apple’s Siri assistant doesn’t seem to be advancing very quickly. This is true even though Apple got a huge head start on other assistants by debuting Siri way back in 2011. At WWDC 2019, I hoped to hear an overarching plan for Siri to do more things in a consistent way across all of Apple’s products and OS’s. After all, new AI boss John Giannandrea had already been in his job (poached from Google) for more than a year. But Siri didn’t play a big part in the presentation, and Apple hasn’t said much about improvements to its assistant since.

Siri’s limitations seemed especially apparent in Apple’s HomePod speaker, which was supposed to compete with Amazon’s Echo devices (and Alexa brains) and Google’s Home speakers (with their Assistant brains). The HomePod, at $349, has not competed well in a market that seems to prefer low-priced smart speakers. Indeed Apple has made only incremental improvements to HomePod since its release in 2018, including things like the ability to recognize more than one user and the ability for two of the things to work in stereo. Nor did we see the smaller, more affordable HomePod many had predicted to show up this year.

Good: Splitting iPad OS off from iOS

The iPad’s OS got some new features in 2019 that made the device feel more like a serious productivity tool—in short, more like a laptop. The new home screen, for example, looks more like the desktop of a MacBook Pro. The new Safari is less like a wimpy mobile browser and more like a powerful desktop browser. Many enhancements involve forms of multitasking. For instance you can have multiple documents from the same app open at once, and move content between them more easily.

The iPad OS also got a new branding identity, which telegraphs a new vision that may diverge from the limitations of iOS, as my colleague Harry McCracken points out. It’s now called iPadOS, which suggests that Apple will keep adding new variations on iOS that exploit the larger screen of the iPad and iPad-only features such as the Pencil stylus. This name change will probably be a gift that keeps on giving for people who want to use their iPad for both work and play.

Bad: Misreading the smartphone market

On January 2, 2019, Apple CEO Tim Cook informed shareholders that Apple was slashing its quarterly revenue guidance, due to a dramatic shortfall in iPhone sales. This came after a holiday quarter where iPhone sales plummeted 14.9% year-over-year, to $51.98 billion. Poor iPhone demand in China accounted for much of the drop, though a slow pace of iPhone upgrades in developed markets was also an issue, according to Cook. “Our customers are holding on to their older iPhones a bit longer than in the past,” he said during a quarterly financial call. However, after being asked by an analyst about whether Apple now believes the iPhone lineup may be priced “too high,” Cook said no.

He may have been half-right. People buy phones because they value the new features and general cool factor they get for the dollar. And the iPhone XS line simply didn’t score as well as past iPhones on that scale.

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Good: Trading a little thinness for battery life

I’ve been using an iPhone 11 Pro Max for months now, and I’m still struck by how long the battery lasts. The iPhone 11 Pro Max battery lasts more than 12 hours, vs. about 10 hours for the iPhone XS Max. The battery life improvement stems in part from improvements in the power efficiency of the system-on-a-chip inside the Pro Max. But it’s also because the iPhone 11 Pro Max has a larger battery than last year’s iPhone XS Max. And there’s more room for the larger battery because the new phones are slightly thicker than the 2018 phones. As he departed Apple, Jony Ive was surely dismayed at the thicker device. But increasing battery life was one of the most crowdpleasing improvements Apple could have made to its newest phones.

Bad: The AirPower non-launch

Apple’s AirPower charging mat was meant to charge three iDevices at once, like a Watch, an iPhone, and some AirPods wireless headphones. Apple announced the gadget in September 2017 alongside the iPhone X and iPhone 8 series, both of which featured wireless charging, and said the charging mat would ship that same year. But it didn’t. Then 2018 passed with no AirPower. Reports said the device faced overheating problems, charging activation issues, and charging level accuracy problems. Then in March of 2019, Apple canceled the product, saying that it couldn’t build something that met its own standards. This was a little surprising after Apple had managed to bring to market the AirPods, which appeared to be a much harder wireless problem. At any rate, getting through the R&D process far enough to actually announce a product, then failing to get it ready for market, is not a good look.

Good: Clearing things up with Qualcomm

In April, Apple and chipmaker Qualcomm reached a surprise settlement after what seemed like endless wrangling over the amount of royalties Apple paid to license Qualcomm’s patented technologies. The settlement cost Apple as much as $4.7 billion, but the two companies are once again playing nice together. The deal allowed Apple and Qualcomm to enter a six-year patent license agreement as well as a multiyear chipset supply agreement. It was a good deal for Qualcomm’s modem business, but it may have been an even better deal for Apple, which is under pressure to have a 5G modem chip in its 2020 iPhones. Apple tried to help Intel build the modem chip, but Intel began to miss development milestones, and Intel’s leadership is said to have lost interest in modem chips as a business. Not long after making peace with Qualcomm, Apple bought out Intel’s 5G modem business. This may also be a smart move, because it gives Apple the intellectual property and the people it’ll need to design its own modem chip later on.

Bad: Banning the HKmap.live app

Apple has a reputation for being progressive, idealistic, and outspoken. But those ideals sometimes fade when they come into conflict with the company’s profit-making ability. That’s what appeared to happen in November when Apple sided with the Hong Kong police (and, by extension, with China) by banning HKmap.live, an app that helped Hong Kong residents locate—and stay out of the way of—dangerous riots between police and protestors.

The police said protestors were using the app to target individual officers, but never produced proof or specific examples. Nor did Apple offer such information about the alleged targeting when it sent a memo to its employees explaining its action. That’s why it’s fair to worry that the company may have chosen to appease China by siding with the Hong Kong police. Apple may have recognized that a refusal to ban the app could anger the Hong Kong police, and then escalate into a standoff with China. And as we’ve seen, the Chinese smartphone market has nationalist tendencies and can shun American products when Sino-U.S. tensions are high. China contributed 17.3% of Apple’s total revenue in the September-ending quarter.

Good: Getting tough on ad-tech

At its WWDC developer event in June, Apple announced a new iOS 13 and MacOS Catalina feature called “Sign in with Apple,” which is Apple’s answer to the venerable “social sign-in” buttons from Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Yahoo. These buttons offer a way to sign into apps or websites without having to enter an email address, password, and other information. But they offer the same devil’s bargain social networks like Facebook do: “We will provide you with a convenient free service, and by the way, you will pay for it with some of your personal data.”

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Sign in with Apple is designed to make logging into apps and sites easy—without giving up a ton of personal data as part of the bargain. It may be the company’s most tangible act of privacy protection yet. The new Sign in with Apple button provides a secure log in to participating apps and sites, verified by Face ID or Touch ID. It’s available for both iOS and MacOS apps as well as websites. But it doesn’t transmit the user’s personal information. Instead of providing an email address to the app, Apple’s button generates a randomized email that’s linked to user’s real email. And Apple creates a unique random address for each app so the user can shut down communication from a particular app at any time.

Apple also made the common advertiser practice of cookie dropping a little harder in 2019. The ever-inventive ad-tech industry has figured out how to use first-party cookies (like ones dropped by this site to keep track of your interests), not their own, to track you around the web. So Apple’s WebKit team released a new policy statement that expands the power of its Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) technology to prevent that practice.

Bad: Not doing even more on privacy

Apple often says “privacy is a human right.” It can take this strong stance because it’s never relied on personal data to make money, as Facebook and Google do. And it’s in Apple’s interest to talk loudly about protecting privacy, because it wants its users to store increasing quantities of sensitive personal information such as mobile payment credentials and healthcare data on their iDevices.

Apple spoke out in favor of new privacy regulation in 2019, but it could have done far more. But again money talked louder than ideals. For instance, it reportedly took billions from Google to make Google’s search engine the default in iOS, thereby letting Google collect data on Apple’s customers. Apple also allows unrestricted versions of Facebook’s data-vacuuming apps in its app store.

Apple could let its privacy philosophy speak through its products more often, as it did this year with Sign in with Apple tool. For example, the company could offer online social spaces where its customers wouldn’t fear having their personal data harvested. Competing directly with Facebook’s namesake service might not be practical, but Apple may be the perfect tech giant to offer an alternative to Instagram. It controls more than a billion hardware devices in the wild, including the iPhones everybody already uses to shoot Instagram photos. Apple could offer a privacy-focused photo sharing app integrated tightly with the camera and the Photos app on every iDevice.

This is probably wishful thinking, but I do hope that Apple takes more positive action on its privacy beliefs next year. Instead of just resisting the surveillance economy, Apple should create new products or tools that provide alternatives to it.

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All in all, I’d say Apple’s smart moves outweighed its dumb ones in 2019. And the wisdom of some of its 2019 moves—like Tim Cook’s chumminess with the Trumps—is yet to be determined.

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