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Apple in 2020: Can't stay in the ivory tower forever
This past year was a weird one for Apple. The company doesn’t make a habit of launching revolutionary new hardware very often, but in 2019 we didn’t really see anything fresh at all from Apple. Sure, we got new iPhones, a new MacPro, some new iPads, etc., but nothing new. All we saw were refreshes and minor updates for already-existing products.
Unfortunately for Apple, 2019 might be the last year it can get away with that kind of thing. As iPhone sales continue to struggle around the world — so much so that Apple won’t even tell investors how many it’s selling anymore — the notion that the company can coast along without paying mind to the competition simply won’t be possible. In order to stay on top, Apple will need to actually get out on the field and play ball.
However, Apple still has an ace up its sleeve: services. No company in the world is better poised for disrupting pretty much any subscription-based service, and in 2019 we saw Apple stepping into that realm significantly with the launches of Apple News Plus, Apple TV Plus, and Apple Arcade.
The bottom line, though, is that the iPhone is Apple’s bread-and-butter. If it wants the iPhone to stay on top in 2020, it needs to step down from its ivory tower and offer more products for more people.
Meet the new iPhones, same as the old iPhones
As far as Apple’s star product goes, we saw three new iPhones launch this year. First up was the iPhone 11, which is the spiritual successor to 2018’s iPhone XR. We also saw the iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max, the successors of 2018’s iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max, respectively.
Although Apple finally stepped into the world of triple-lens rear camera systems with the new Pro models of the iPhone, there’s not all too much to say about these new devices. Yes, they all got the usual iterative upgrades — a faster processor, better battery life, new software features, etc. — but there was nothing that really wowed us. The only indicator that someone has an iPhone 11 Pro and not an iPhone X, iPhone XS, or even iPhone XR, is the squircle-shaped camera module on the back.
To be clear, Apple hasn’t drastically updated the iPhone design since 2017 with the launch of the iPhone X. Before that, the company hadn’t drastically altered the iPhone design since 2014 with the iPhone 6, the first iPhone with a curved body. So the idea of iPhones staying the same for a few years before getting a big update isn’t out of the ordinary.
However, how long can Apple keep this up? Consumers are starting to move away from the iPhone and the line is struggling in developing markets such as India and China, where Android devices reign supreme. We’ll touch more on this conundrum in a bit.
Hello, Mac Pro, welcome back
After a whopping six years without a refresh, Apple finally gave the Mac Pro some love in 2019. The cylindrical “trashcan” design is gone, updated instead to a more conventional tower design with a new nickname: the “cheesegrater.”
The Mac Pro line has long been the go-to for artists, videographers, and other professionals who need the best-of-the-best when it comes to computer power. The fact that these professionals had to wait so long to get a new product is quite notable.
What’s also notable, though, is how expensive the Mac Pro is. A maxed-out model will set you back an absolutely jaw-dropping $60,000, and even a bottom-of-the-barrel model starts at $6,000. The new ultra-premium computer monitor, the Pro Display XDR, also is incredibly expensive, starting at $5,000. And that’s without a stand, which costs an extra $1,000.
Still, people love the Mac Pro and appear to be very happy that the “trashcan” model has been sunsetted.
AirPods Pro and subtle tweaks for other Apple products
In late 2019, Apple’s insanely popular AirPods got a brand new line: AirPods Pro. These new true-wireless earbuds feature noise-canceling capabilities as well as a slightly different design. The popularity of AirPods can’t be overstated: at this point, they are selling better than even the iPod ever did.
However, outside of the new line of iPhones, the new Mac Pro design, and AirPods Pro, all the other Apple products either received subtle tweaks or were simply left alone in 2019.
The “regular” line of iPads got a refresh with some subtle upgrades. The most notable update for iPads though was the introduction of a new operating system separate from the usual iOS. Known as iPad OS, the new operating system is specifically designed for iPads which Apple will now treat as a wholly different ecosystem from the iPhone.
However, the iPad Pro line didn’t get any updates at all — those are expected in early 2020.
The Apple Watch got a refresh with the Series 5 model, but the list of updates is very short. Other than a new always-on display mode, the Series 5 is so close to the Series 4 that there’s little reason to upgrade.
Finally, Apple did take the time to fix one of the biggest complaints about one of its star products: the keyboards on its line of MacBook laptops. The butterfly keyboard design is objectively bad, but Apple returned to a more conventional scissor design with its 2019 16-inch MacBooks.
Tons of services and even a credit card
Since Apple mostly delivered iterative upgrades to its hardware this year, what did it actually focus on? The answer to that is services; namely the brand new Apple News Plus, Apple TV Plus, and Apple Arcade services.
Apple asks for a relatively small monthly fee for each of the three subscription products and, in return, offers premium news content, exclusive television content, and an ever-expanding catalog of high-quality mobile games.
With most of Apple’s hardware divisions seeing weakening sales (with the notable exception of those AirPods), it’s clear the company is ready to bet big on services. In fact, there’s a rumor that Apple could bundle all of its services together in 2020 to offer an “Apple Prime” sort of deal. It’s even possible Apple could add an iPhone subscription to that system, which would (theoretically) include a new iPhone each year for subscribers.
Finally, Apple launched what is quite possibly its most unexpected service this year: a physical credit card. While there are some unique offers users can get through the card and the card itself is made of metal, there’s nothing too out-of-this-world about the Apple Card. It’s a credit card. You use it to buy stuff.
Apple and Qualcomm shake hands
In any given year, it would be difficult to whittle down the various happenings at Apple and pick the one that was the most significant. This year, though, that crown should probably fall on the end of the years-long battle between Apple and silicon manufacturer Qualcomm.
Not only did the two companies end all legal battles between them in a wholly-unexpected truce, but they even signed a six-years long deal to work together building iPhones. Granted, Apple isn’t planning on sticking with Qualcomm forever, as it is openly working on replacing iPhone modems made by Qualcomm with its own in-house modems.
Still, Apple didn’t have much of a choice when it comes to Qualcomm. Intel’s modems were objectively inferior to Qualcomm’s and Intel was in no way ready to deliver 5G-capable modems in time to keep iPhones competitive. In a way, Apple had to swallow its pride with the Qualcomm deal, but it was a necessary (and no doubt humbling) move.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing…
Despite Apple’s continued status as one of the most successful companies in all of human history, there were still plenty of problems the company faced in 2019.
We mentioned this earlier, but iPhone sales took a nosedive this year, especially in developing markets. The year started off on a bad note with Apple issuing a very rare guidance revision to its investors, in which it conceded that revenue was going to be considerably lower than expected.
In a call with investors, Apple CEO Tim Cook confirmed that iPhone sales were sagging and even admitted that pricing was likely a factor in those dips. The release of the iPhone 11 series helped with sales somewhat, but Apple can’t move the needle when it comes to iPhones in India, which is a huge problem.
In June, news broke that Jony Ive would be leaving Apple. Although Ive’s presence at Apple had diminished significantly over the years, his exit represents an interesting milestone: the end of the so-called Steve Jobs era of the company. Ive was responsible for many of Apple’s most iconic designs, including those of the iPhone, iPad, iMac, Apple Watch, and more.
Apple had some considerable revenue issues this year, as well as some privacy, PR, and even political problems.
In August, Apple got into some hot water related to its HomePod speaker. The company was giving HomePod recordings of users to third-party contractors, and through these recordings, the contractors could hear private information about users. This was quite ironic considering Apple’s very public declarations about the importance of privacy.
In October, Apple faced global scrutiny when it pulled a few apps from its App Store related to the protest demonstrations happening in Hong Kong. Although Apple attempted to play down the move, the general consensus from the public was that Apple didn’t want to upset the Chinese government by appearing to support or enable the Hong Kong protests. It didn’t help that Apple also removed the Taiwan flag from its set of Emojis, sent IP addresses of its Chinese users to Tencent, and even told developers of Apple TV Plus shows to not put anything in their programs that would upset China.
Finally, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing Phil Schiller caused some PR problems when he made some tone-deaf comments related to the use of cheap Chromebooks in the education sector. Apparently, Schiller doesn’t know just how expensive iPads and MacBooks really are.
Apple in 2020: More hardware for more people
Apple is a very secretive company, so rumors can sometimes be hard to come by when it comes to its upcoming slate of products. However, we do have at least some information related to what’s on the docket for 2020.
The first 5G iPhones
The previously mentioned Qualcomm deal will enable Apple to release at least one 5G-capable iPhone in 2020. Remarkably, rumors seem to support the idea that every device in the iPhone 12 lineup will be 5G-ready.
However, there will be differences when it comes to those 5G connections. Rumors suggest that the non-Pro model(s) of the iPhone 12 lineup could connect to sub-600MHz 5G networks (think T-Mobile’s Band 71) while the Pro variants could feature sub-600MHz support and mmWave support. This is all speculation at this point, but that strategy makes perfect sense.
Additionally, it’s possible that there will be two non-Pro models of the iPhone 12 lineup — a small variant and a large variant. Theoretically, this is what the iPhone 12 lineup could look like, according to rumors:
- iPhone 12 (Small) with 5.4-inch OLED display
- iPhone 12 (Large) with 6.1-inch OLED display
- iPhone 12 Pro with 6.1-inch OLED display
- iPhone 12 Pro Max with 6.7-inch OLED display
If this ends up panning out, that would make the 2020 lineup the largest ever for iPhone releases. But things could get even more interesting as Apple is also rumored to be launching a new, budget-oriented iPhone in 2020. Read on!
The iPhone 9 or iPhone SE 2 (Or whatever it will be called)
Apple tried to launch a “cheap” iPhone in 2016 with the iPhone SE. The device was essentially an iPhone 5S with some minor internal upgrades. However, it was considerably less expensive than the iPhone 6S, which launched about six months before the iPhone SE.
The iPhone SE wasn’t a huge success for Apple. Although Apple’s head was in the right place offering a more budget-conscious iPhone for developing markets, the device felt like a rehash rather than a new phone. Eventually, the iPhone SE sunsetted after just one iteration, not unlike Apple’s other attempt at a budget iPhone, the iPhone 5C.
In 2020, it looks like Apple is ready to try again at delivering a true mid-range smartphone. The most up-to-date rumors suggest the device will actually be called the iPhone 9 and look similar to the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus.
This sounds like a simple repeat of the iPhone SE strategy to us, but maybe Apple has some new ideas up its sleeve. Whatever the case, it needs to offer an affordable iPhone to general consumers in India and China if it’s going to keep its third-place crown in the global smartphone market, so this iPhone 9 — or whatever it’s going to be called — can’t come soon enough.
iPad Pro update
As mentioned earlier, the “regular” iPads received a refresh in 2019, but the iPad Pro was ignored. As such, it’s very likely Apple will give some love to the iPad Pro in 2020. However, information at the moment is scarce regarding this. It’s a likely bet that we’ll see a new iPad Pro in 2020, but what it will look like and what upgrades Apple will offer are unknown at the moment.
Thanks to some recent leaks we can expect to see the same squircle-shaped rear camera module that we saw on the iPhone 11 line on the iPad Pro line. There are also some rumors that Apple will finally pull the trigger on its augmented reality ambitions with the next-gen iPad Pros.
MacBook Air update
Similarly to the iPad line, Apple offered many updates to its line of computers in 2019 — with the notable exception of the MacBook Air. The most recent versions of this laptop still have the much-detested butterfly keyboard, so it’s a safe bet that Apple will release a new MacBook Air in 2020 with a traditional scissor keyboard.
Outside of this, though, what new features could come with a refreshed MacBook Air are unknown at the moment.
Apple TV update, Studio Pods, and HomePod 2
Another Apple product that hasn’t seen an update in a while is the Apple TV media streamer. Its last refresh was in 2017 when the company introduced Apple TV 4K, which supports 4K streaming, naturally.
In 2020, it would make sense for Apple to push out another refresh for this device. It’s also possible that Apple could release an entry-level streamer, too, since it now runs Apple TV Plus and wants as many people to sign up as possible. Maybe an Apple TV Stick? We’ll need to wait and see.
Apple’s entry in the smart speaker space, the Apple HomePod, has actually never received an update. Although Apple should probably just hand the smart speaker war to Amazon and Google at this point, it’s possible the company could finally get around to launching a HomePod 2 in 2020.
Finally, there have been rumors floating around for a while now that Apple has a new set of headphones in the works. Unlike its popular AirPods, these unconfirmed headphones would have an over-ear design and compete with devices such as the Sony WH-1000XM3 and the Bose Noise Cancelling 700. Nicknamed “StudioPods,” it’s possible they could land in 2020.
Apple can’t stay in the ivory tower forever
We have no illusions that Apple will likely continue to be one of the most successful companies in history. We also know that Android OEMs will continue to look to Apple for inspiration when it comes to smartphone designs and features.
However, 2019 has proven that Apple’s reign as a smartphone king is by no means assured. The iPhone is falling out of favor with buyers around the world and people aren’t as keen to upgrade to the latest model as they used to be.
Couple that with the fact that Apple has no apparent strategy for delivering Apple smartphones to developing markets and you have a company that is not on firm ground in the mobile sector. At this point, Apple can’t simply rest on its reputation as Apple — if it wants to continue to be a big-time smartphone manufacturer, it’s going to need to step down out of its ivory tower and play ball with the rest of the industry.
Apple can't solely rest on its reputation anymore to sell smartphones. It needs to come out on the field and play ball.
What does that mean? That means Apple is going to need to really ramp up its game when it comes to iPhone features and designs. It can’t release a rehash of its previous design every year and expect people to flock to stores to upgrade. Samsung, Huawei, Xiaomi, OnePlus, and all the rest of the big-time players know this and act on it as best they can each year.
Additionally, if Apple wants to compete in emergent markets it needs a hit smartphone that is decidedly in the mid-range. That means something closer to the Google Pixel 3a in price, not something like the iPhone XR. This would, of course, necessitate the company tweaking its image slightly as it’s still seen solely as a luxury brand. Whatever it needs to do, though, it needs to do soon, as it can’t keep ignoring India, China, and even the less-privileged here in the United States and across Europe.
With all of this in mind, it’s very possible we will see a whole new Apple in 2020. If we don’t, it’s very possible our 2021 roundup will have lots of bad news to report.