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Apple killed it this year, and Android needs a shot in the arm

2020 has been a testing year for technology companies, but Apple's strategy has come out ahead as we move into 2021.

Published onDecember 23, 2020

Apple Logo EOY 2020

We all love Android, but come on… Apple killed it this year.

Cupertino hit the ground running with the refreshed iPhone SE early in the year. It showed Android manufacturers how to blend cutting edge performance, flagship features, and an affordable price tag into a winning formula. It’s hard to name an Android equivalent that’s quite as good at all three. Not only did the phone review very well, but it set the benchmark for incredible value this year.

The Apple iPad refresh, the Watch Series 6, and the iPhone 12 series are all predictably competent pieces of hardware too. They’ve refined what we’ve come to expect from Apple products over the years. Cupertino certainly knows how to make and market high-end products, helping to keep Android tablets and smartwatches at an arm’s length. The company also shook up its various subscription services, combining them under the more competitively priced Apple One bundle. It’s a leaner, more competitive force in the media steaming race as a result, which certainly doesn’t hurt Apple’s broader ecosystem either.

Apple rounded out 2020 with its most sweeping change in years. Arm-based Macs with custom Apple silicon will eventually end the company’s dependence on Intel CPUs. This has ushered in a new era of hardware and ecosystem control, from processors through to operating systems. The closer melding of hardware and software will yield dividends for future products in terms of performance and features. The switch to Arm-based PCs unifies the processor architecture with iPad and iPhone platforms too, blurring the lines between PC and mobile. Apple now has sufficient control to drive performance, photography, gaming, security, and other features across all its platforms in whatever way it sees fit.

The blazing-fast Apple M1 chip is bound to upset the MacBook and laptop markets, as well as Intel. However, it’s likely to be a headache for developers in the short term. Perhaps more importantly, the long-running “Wintel” paradigm is under increasing pressure too. Windows on Arm, which is currently powered by Qualcomm silicon, may see faster uptake from Microsoft’s hardware partners if Apple’s switch to Arm yields sufficient dividends for consumers.

Apple is definitely in the ascendancy as 2020 comes to a close.

It wasn’t all roses

iPhone 12 Pro Max back with neon 1

It would be wrong to characterize this year as a flawless victory though. Apple generated its fair share of controversies throughout 2020 as well.

The company clashed heads with Fortnite publisher Epic Games earlier in the year over its 30% revenue cut and publishing conditions. Apple ended up removing Fortnite from its App Store. It also moved to terminate Epic’s access to developer accounts and tools. This saga didn’t help assuage sentiments that Apple isn’t very developer-friendly. Neither did the company’s argument with email subscription service Hey over a similar subscription dispute. Damage control has subsequently seen Apple drop its app free to 15% for smaller developers.

Hardware hasn’t been a slam dunk this year either. The AirPods Pro Max headphones have come in for some flak for their exorbitant $550 price tag. Especially as rivals like the Sony WH-1000XM4 and the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 come in much cheaper. If annoying gamers and audiophiles wasn’t enough, Apple also managed to irritate virtually all of its iPhone 12 customers by ditching in-box chargers.

See also: The charger-less iPhone 12 isn’t as eco-friendly as Apple wants you to think

While there are eco-waste arguments about in-box chargers worth considering, Apple doesn’t earn any goodwill for its decision. Moving over to a Lightning to USB-C cable means some customers can’t charge their new iPhone 12 with older iPhone chargers. Having to buy a new USB-C charger undermines the waste argument, as does the potential longer-term move to the proprietary MagSafe standard. Even so, I would encourage customers to contemplate picking up a single USB-C charger for their phone and laptop needs.

Apple certainly hasn’t improved its pretty dire reputation for unfriendly consumer and industry practices this year.

Android scored a few wins, but the ecosystem battle is Apple’s to lose

Best Smartphones 3 EOY 2020

Despite a few PR setbacks, Apple’s hardware and ecosystem launches have left the company in a stronger place than at the start of the year and with a clear vision for 2021. It’s harder to say the same for the Android ecosystem.

2020 saw the arrival of some very interesting Android phones at more affordable price points. Inexpensive 5G handsets, such as the Google Pixel 4a 5G and OnePlus Nord, have made next-gen networking more affordable than ever. Android has nailed the price and performance sweet spot this year. There’s been a familiar assortment of powerful Android flagships too, which are every bit as good as the latest iPhones, if not better. However, high-end products aren’t shaking up the industry on their own.

Related: Does Google have a reply to Apple’s all-in-one ecosystem?

Apple is moving towards a unified platform for smartphones, wearables, TV, and now PCs. Cupertino is tightening up its ecosystem, with a view to ensure all its devices and services play nicely together in the future. Expansive ecosystems that cater to all your technological needs is where the premium market is heading. Android manufacturers don’t have this luxury. They are relying on Google, Microsoft, and others to link and wrangle various devices together.

Samsung is perhaps the only Android brand with a broad enough product range to compete with Apple. Tizen-powered smartwatches come closer to rivaling the Apple Watch than their Wear OS counterparts. The company also has a range of smart appliances and audio products under its belt, although its tablet selection — especially the iPad Pro-rivaling Galaxy Tab S7 Plus — is a case study in Google’s software holding back otherwise good hardware. By comparison, Apple’s iPad range reaps the benefits of a unified approach to premium hardware and software. All that said, Samsung still doesn’t have a powerhouse PC platform or stakes in the streaming market as Apple. Meanwhile, Google fancies itself an Apple competitor too but barely registers in terms of product shipments.

Android manufacturers can't exert the same control and influence across their broader product ranges as Apple.

While the long-overdue Google TV update for Android TV offered some much-needed ecosystem improvements on the streaming front, Chromebooks in their current form aren’t going to unite Google’s mobile and PC platforms. Not in the same way as Apple’s Arm-Macs. Assistant and Google services are still great to use across multiple devices, of course, especially in the automotive and smart home market. But there’s currently no vision to unify apps across these platforms and PCs. That’s something enterprise customers will contemplate even more so than us typical consumers. Likewise, Google’s TV, wearables, and gaming initiatives are still disjointed and underdeveloped.

So, I’m personally awarding this year to Apple. The company has a clear and exciting vision for the next few years. By comparison, 2020 has been mostly business as usual for Android and Google. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We’ve seen plenty of good handsets this year. However, Android and Google appear less forward-looking than their biggest rival. For now at least.