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Apple is both a creator of and a beacon for the technology future we now live in
10 ways Apple really has changed the (tech) world
From the beginning, Apple liked to proclaim how it was inventing the future with products that would change the world. That visionary impulse often comes across as stubbornness, with Apple ignoring what the pundits say -- and it often comes across as overwrought, when Apple puts on its “it’s all amazing and revolutionary” dog-and-pony shows. Even when co-founder Steve Jobs wasn’t at Apple, that attitude has prevailed.
Yet no tech company in the past 35 years has done as much user-facing innovation as Apple. Never mind that most people don’t use Macs or iPads. Even when it doesn’t win the market, Apple defines the market time and again.
Here are the 10 most significant products Apple has created, ones that really have changed the world.
Macintosh: Defining the computer for the rest of us
Steve Jobs didn’t create the Mac, but he did create the mythos around it and recognized that it heralded a new, better way to use computers. Ironically, the horribly expensive Mac became the emblem of computing for the masses, a human device for real people who had seen computers as unfathomable tools used only by engineers and scientists.
Microsoft took the core principles of the Mac’s graphical, direct-manipulation interface, itself inspired by work at Xerox PARC, and brought them to Windows, delivering the promise of the Mac to the masses for real. Today, the approach pioneered by the Mac is simply how computers work.
OS X: No operating system does it better
At the core of the Mac today is OS X, Apple’s Unix-based operating system that remains the leader in intuitiveness and ease of use, yet offers sophisticated capabilities from data detectors to malware detection that actually work. The tight integration and intentionality of the OS and Apple’s bundled apps create a superior experience, even if many users don’t use much of what they could.
We forget that OS X was not the original Mac OS. In its 15 years of existence, OS X has pulled off the neat trick of evolving significantly while working as you’d expect. Each version arrives fresh and familiar. Microsoft certainly hasn’t had that happy result in its Windows versions over that same period, with two wins and two flops.
iPod: The music world, reinvented
After Steve Jobs’ 12-year journey in the wilderness of Next and Pixar, he returned to a near-dead Apple -- and came up with the iPod. MP3 players already existed, but none really mattered. Portable CD players and the industry’s portability granddaddy, the Sony Walkman, still ruled.
In 2001, the iPod changed all that, thanks to a better user experience. It also changed the music industry: Songs now mattered, not albums, and with the iTunes Store, Apple shifted the distribution of music from physical stores to downloads. The music business -- and music listening -- in 2014 bears little resemblance to that of 2001.
The iPod also changed Apple, converting the computer company into a consumer technology company, which is the source of its strength today.
iPhone: The end of the cell phone, the beginning of mobile computing
When the iPhone debuted in 2007, InfoWorld’s Tom Yager derided it as a $1,975 iPod, due to its required data plan. A year later, Apple debuted the App Store, and the iPhone was no longer an iPod that could make calls. Apple smartly created several rich apps -- iMovie, GarageBand, Pages, Keynote, Numbers -- that to this day are unrivaled as mobile apps and show that a smartphone isn’t a cellphone that supports email, as the once-dominant BlackBerry had been, but a computer in its own right. Apple had this vision back in 1993 with its Newton MessagePad, which clearly presages the iPhone of 2007.
Today, Android rules much of the smartphone world; like Windows used the Mac as inspiration, Android used the iPhone.
App Store: A digital store for a digital world
Remember when software was a digital thing on an analog disk? It was back before there was an app for that.
The App Store did more than distribute bits as bits: It introduced the notions of curated content (which developers hate but has kept iOS largely malware-free), and it made possible the notion that you buy apps that can run on multiple devices you own -- a major break from traditional licenses. Apple understood early on that in a digital world, endpoints are federated, and the software industry needs to think beyond physical installations. Now, an app store is just the way it’s done, including at Google and Microsoft.
iPad: The PC, reinvented -- and the TV, reinvented
There were tablets, or at least slates, on the original Star Trek TV series in the 1960s. In the modern PC era, there’ve been Windows tablets since at least the XP days, but all were flops.
The iPad changed that, becoming the first tablet that people wanted, and spawning a copycat industry (some copies pre-dated the iPad itself, based on rumors). But no one does it as well as the iPad.
Tablets now sell as many units as PCs do, and the iPad was the fastest-adopted mass technology in human history. Tablets can be your mobile PC, but they’re as likely to (also) be your personal TV, among other things. Amazing.
Touch: The gestures we all use came from Apple
It doesn’t matter what devices or operating systems you run, when it comes to touch gestures, they all work very much the same way -- at core, Apple’s way. Apple has vigorously protected some gestures through patents, but the basic gestures it introduced on the iPhone are practically universal. They’ve become like mouse movements, used by everyone.
That universality has quickly let the gesture approach to computing take off, as both developers and users can focus less on learning the UI and more on, well, using it. Most of Apple’s impact has been on mobile devices, but its adaption of touch to computers via touch-enabled mice and trackpads probably means when touch PCs finally get popular, they’ll use Apple’s gestures, too.
Autodiscovery networking: Connecting a connected world
IT has long hated Apple networking technology because it’s chatty, inefficient, and not concerned about IT control. But if you want things to connect in the world of people, you count on Apple technology.
Want to share files or music on a Mac? It’s automatic, thanks to built-in discovery protocols. Want to print from an iPad or iPhone? Select a printer and let AirPrint do the work, no drivers needed. Want play music at someone’s house? Turn on AirPlay. (If they have an AirPlay-enabled device.) Video and presentations are likewise a snap. File sharing is follow these lines via AirDrop in ad hoc networks. And Handoff is a step in this direction for app interactions.
Apple knows the secret: It’s about connecting, not networking.
iBeacons: Contextual technology for the real world
Apple’s location-aware sensors are only a year old, so it’s too soon to call them a revolution, but I think they’re well poised to be.
It’s not the hardware that’s key, but the APIs and hooks in iOS that let an iPhone or iPad -- and future devices -- combine location information with both local and cloud data to open a new world for users. I’m sure that iBeacons, motion coprocessors, HealthKit, CloudKit, CarPlay, and other contextual technology are part of an Apple 3.0 that has just begun to emerge.
Apple TV, take 2: Streaming is just the beginning
Basically a media server appliance, the first (white) Apple TV in 2006 was not very good. PC makers have been pushing media servers for years, as unsuccessfully as they had been pushing tablets. Apple needed to rethink the problem, which the second (black) Apple TV did.
It wasn’t a media server but a new kind of set-top box that draws programming from on-demand services (first iTunes; later Hulu and many TV networks). Plus, unlike competing devices, it acts as a relay point for all sorts of entertainment from users’ devices: Macs, PCs, iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touches.
The Apple TV is a content nexus, and that notion fits quite nicely in the mix of personal and connection that other Apple technologies simultaneously proffer.
16 November 2023