six colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Apple in 2016: The Six Colors report card

As we close the door on 2016, I thought it would be useful to look back at the year gone by and ask a panel of my peers who pay attention to Apple and related markets to take a moment and reflect on Apple’s performance in the past year.

This is the second year that I’ve presented a survey to a group of writers, editors, podcasters and developers. The survey was the same as last year’s. They were prompted with 11 different Apple-related subjects, and asked to rate them on a scale from 1 to 5, as well as optionally provide text commentary on their vote. I received 37 replies, with the average results as shown below:

Since I was using the same survey as last year, I was also able to track the change in my panel’s consensus opinion compared to the previous year. The net changes between 2015 and 2016 surveys is displayed below:

Judging by my panel’s responses, Apple had a rough year—which I think most close observers of the company would probably agree with. While opinions on the Apple Watch, Apple’s cloud services, and developer relations were improved, there were strong negative trends for the Mac and Apple TV.

But enough of this top-level summary. Read on for category-by-category grades and commentary from three dozen different Apple watchers.

The Mac

Grade: C- (average score: 2.6, median score 3, last year: B)

Did you know it was a tough year for the Mac?

“The Mac was almost entirely neglected this year,” wrote Accidental Tech Podcast’s John Siracusa, who called the never-updated Mac Pro “an embarrassment.” Many Tricks co-founder Rob Griffiths called it “a horrid year,” and most of our panelists had similar bad things to say.

“This is the year Apple produced a book of pictures of Macs instead of great new Macs,” said Ranchero Software developer Brent Simmons. “macOS Sierra and the Touch Bar MacBook Pro are impressive, without a doubt,” wrote Macworld’s Roman Loyola. “But Apple’s neglect of its desktop lineup overshadows everything else Apple has done with the Mac.”

“Hardware-wise, 2016 was an awful year for the Mac,” said Daring Fireball’s John Gruber. “I like the new MacBook Pros With Touch Bar a lot, but I think they were overdue… The lack of updates to the iMac and Mac mini were a disappointment. And the fact that the Mac Pro hasn’t seen any sort of update in over 1,000 days is downright embarrassing.”

Intel, the supplier of the Mac’s processors, was mentioned a few times by panelists, but even in that context there was always the acknowledgement that the ultimate blame for the Mac’s 2016 slog remains with Apple. “Some of this may be a limitation imposed by Intel, but Apple is still ultimately responsible for their product line,” said Securosis’s Rich Mogull.

“The Mac is heavily constrained by Intel’s constant delays and by how much attention iPhone and other products demand,” said iMore’s Rene Ritchie. “But that’s an opportunity for Apple to become more creative and tell better stories. And to make sure no Mac, including the Pro and mini, gets left behind.”

“There may be good reasons for this… but that doesn’t mean that it’s good or that we Mac users have to like it,” said Adam Engst of TidBITS.

“It doesn’t help that Windows is getting better and that in a world of web browsers and web apps, the advantages of the Mac ecosystem are harder to sell,” said Gizmodo’s Christina Warren. “I still love the Mac. LOVE IT. But I can’t help but feel like the momentum is slowing when it should be speeding up.”

Is there room for optimism? Maybe a little bit. “The optimist in me would like to think that… we’ll see more revolutionary products next year with a new industrial design, and possibly even a new architecture,” said PCalc developer James Thomson. “The lack of announcements doesn’t necessarily mean that nothing is happening behind the scenes—it feels like the Mac has taken a gap year to go off and find itself.”

“I think the community’s angst is overblown,” said Accidental Tech Podcast’s Casey Liss. “There are some drawbacks to the new machines, and some that should have been updated years ago. However, I think having four omnivorous, daisy-chainable ports on the new MacBook Pro is going to prove to be very cool in the coming years.”

Reaction to the one major Mac release of the year—the new MacBook Pro—was also mixed.

Rob Griffiths called it “an overpriced toy with an emoji bar, hamstrung by a thin-design-at-all-costs 16GB max RAM limit.” Former MacWEEK and Macworld editor Rick LePage said, “I’m sorry, but the Touch Bar does nothing for me—I want a touch screen. I don’t care that Apple thinks we don’t need it.”

“For many years, you could make the argument that a similarly specced Mac would cost the same as an equivalent PC,” Christina Warren said, referring to the MacBook Pro. “That’s no longer the case. And that will be a problem.”

“I find the Touch Bar both fascinating and a little frustrating, but the hardware is exciting and it will only take software improvements to make me fall in love with it,” said writer and developer Brett Terpstra. Podcaster and Educator Fraser Speirs said, “The Touch Bar MacBook Pro isn’t the computer everybody wanted, but I think it’s a computer that will work for the most people in Apple’s ever-larger and more diverse customer base.”

“I’d like to see a line of Mac desktops and laptops with an obvious model in each category for budget-conscious users, mid-level users, and pro users,” said Tonya Engst of TidBITS. “Apple also needs to think about what sort of laptop could compete with a Chromebook in an education setting, since they are losing an entire generation of Chromebook-using high schoolers.

“As an iPad-only user, the Touch Bar on the new MacBook Pro is the first Mac-only feature to make me interested in the macOS platform in years,” said Federico Viticci of MacStories. And Macworld editor Susie Ochs said, “The Touch Bar on the new MacBook Pro made the Mac more fun to use than it’s been for years.”

The panel was also split on macOS Sierra. Brett Terpstra called it “a great step”, and Christina Warren said that “this was a good year for the Mac” on the software side. But Dan Moren of Six Colors called Sierra “solidly underwhelming” and podcaster Lex Friedman called the implementation of Siri in Sierra as “lame… I never use Siri on my Mac even though I know it’s there.”

The iPhone

Grade: B+/A- (average score: 4.0, median score 4, last year: A)

Although its grade dropped a bit from 2015, our panelists still rated the iPhone as Apple’s best-performing product category.

“The iPhone SE was unexpectedly great, and the 7 and 7 Plus mostly overcame their seemingly-pointless headphone-jack removal with substantial camera upgrades, small but welcome battery improvements, and surprisingly compelling new black finishes,” said developer and podcaster Marco Arment.

“I think iOS 10 is the best update since iOS 7; while there isn’t a single stand-out feature, the overall improvements are remarkable,” said Josh Centers of TidBITS.

“I really do love my 7 Plus,” said MacDrifter’s Gabe Weatherhead. “It’s far more powerful than I need. Force Touch is fantastic. iOS is finally feeling like a stable OS I can depend on.”

“I’ve done other iPhone upgrades where it mostly felt eh…, but this one is a revelation,” said Lex Friedman.”

“We definitely need this major redesign to happen next year,” said Christina Warren. “And Apple can’t count on its biggest competition blowing up upon itself two years in a row.”

“My favorite iPhone in years, the SE, came out this year,” said writer and podcaster John Moltz. “This was pretty much exactly what I wanted: Smaller form factor with decent battery life and newer internals. More like this, please.”

“I would rather see a substantial update to the iPhone every two years rather than a small, incremental change every year,” said writer Kirk McElhearn.

The iPad

Grade: B- (average score: 3.4, median score 3, last year: B+)

The iPad made a lot of progress in 2015, with major iPad features added to iOS 9 and the debut of the iPad Pro late in the year. 2016 was a lot quieter—though it did feature the launch of the 9.7-inch iPad Pro—and the iPad’s grade suffered a bit as a result.

“The release of the 9.7-inch iPad Pro was absolutely stellar, providing a huge upgrade with no downsides to the mainstream iPad that’s ideal for nearly everyone,” said Marco Arment.

“I had a wish-list of sysadmin requests for iOS and almost every single one was delivered in iOS 9.3, Apple School Manager and Apple Classroom,” said Fraser Speirs. “iOS 10.0 was a disappointment to iPad users in that it didn’t bring any significant new productivity features or tweaks. Some, such as a redesign of the multitasking secondary app picker are desperately needed.”

“Apple had little to show for iPad users in iOS 10, and while the 9.7-inch iPad Pro is loved by many people I know, I don’t use it, and I still think the bigger Pro is better suited for work,” said Federico Viticci.

“I’m a huge fan of the iPad Pro series,” said Rich Mogull. “I no longer need a laptop for most of my work travel… It’s even enabled entirely new ways of working for me… when I’m with clients the larger screen and Apple Pencil have replaced whiteboarding.”

“My next MacBook will be an iPad Pro,” said writer Shawn Blanc.

“Having used an iPad as a laptop replacement for several months, it feels like the hardware is there but the software still lags behind,” said writer and podcaster David Sparks. “iOS limitations with simple things, like saving multiple files, needs to be addressed for the platform to move forward.”

“Swift Playgrounds is amazing. While it is similar to other tools that teach other languages, I think Learn to Code is a great resource for people who want to get started with app development,” said podcaster and educator Aleen Simms. “As an App Camp for Girls organizer, I’m really excited to let our teams of young developers get their hands on some iPads to see what they come up with!”

Still, there’s also a concern that the iPad hasn’t met its potential. “[Apple has] completely undervalued the Pencil as a new device—their vision for it seems pedestrian and boring,” said Gabe Weatherhead.

“I’m still not seeing a huge software commitment from Apple,” said Christina Warren. “The fact that developers still can’t target only the iPad Pro… keeps them from charging what those apps should cost.”

“It doesn’t feel as though Apple has followed through on the iPad’s promise by driving its evolution more quickly,” said Adam Engst.

“While Apple is finding its groove with technology like Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard Case, they’re still not telling a compelling story,” said Rene Ritchie.

“As a developer, I see the iPad as a lost platform, which is heartbreaking,” said Brent Simmons.

Apple Watch

Grade: B (average score: 3.7, median score 3, last year: C)

In an otherwise dark year, the Apple Watch story was a surprisingly feel-good one, with the platform’s first hardware revision and the major software update to watchOS 3.

“It’s a testament to 2016 as a weird year when the Apple Watch is one of the bright spots in the company’s line-up,” said Dan Moren. “Though I’ve worn my Apple Watch almost every day since it came out, it wasn’t until watchOS 3 that I felt like I was really getting out of it what Apple had pitched with the original version.”

“watchOS 3 essentially delivered a whole new watch,” said Fraser Speirs. “It’s really made a huge difference, even to first-generation hardware.”

“The OS now makes much more sense conceptually, makes everything feel much faster, and is focused on the things Apple Watch does best: notifications and fitness tracking,” said John Gruber.

“As a fitness enthusiast it is nearly unusable compared to dedicated fitness watches,” said Rich Mogull. “The heart rate monitoring isn’t very accurate. Also, the watch desperately needs podcast support.”

“The latest watchOS is what should have been the initial watchOS,” said Gabe Weatherhead.

“What impressed me was how thoughtful the watchOS 3 update was,” said Rick LePage. “It turned my somewhat pokey, limited-functionality fitness tracker into something faster and a bit more useful. That’s an Apple I like to see.”

“watchOS 3 is a strong improvement, but there’s still a lot to do,” said Marco Arment. “The new Series 1 and Series 2 hardware is incrementally better, but I expected more hardware progress after the first 18 months.”

“At a time when competing smartwatches are failing, Apple Watch has nailed the wearable companion category,” said Rene Ritchie.

Apple TV

Grade: C- (average score: 2.7, median score 3, last year: B)

2015 was a big one for Apple TV, and our panel was disappointed that in 2016 the product and platform lost a lot of momentum.

“I don’t expect new hardware every year, but I think the content situation needs to improve, and it didn’t in 2016,” said John Gruber.

“Apple TV has effectively stood still in 2016, despite needing significant attention in UI and remote design, performance, bugs, and reliability,” said Marco Arment. “Third-party apps and games have mostly failed to materialize, with Apple making no meaningful changes to address this.”

“Apple TV is more expensive and less capable than its competitors,” said John Siracusa. “Its strongest remaining selling point is its ability to play media purchased in the iTunes store. Lock-in is not a foundation for customer satisfaction. Also, the remote still sucks.”

“Everything about the Apple TV disappoints me now,” said Gabe Weatherhead. “From the interface to the lack of creativity with the hardware. It’s nowhere near where I thought it would be by the end of 2016.”

“I love my Apple TV and it’s our family’s only source of media,” said Fraser Speirs. “However, I don’t think the platform has moved forward as fast as it should have, nor have they worked hard enough to make the marquee apps on the platform be outstanding.”

“Apple just can’t seem to bring the content deals together to make the Apple TV my primary box,” said Mac Power Users podcaster Katie Floyd. “Unfortunately, if you’re a cord cutter (like I am) there’s still not a whole lot of traditional network content accessible on the Apple TV unless you buy it show-by-show through iTunes.”

Still, the feedback wasn’t all bad. Brett Terpstra said, “The Apple TV 4 has been my favorite Apple hardware update, and tvOS updates are quickly smoothing out bugs and improving experience.”

“I love my Apple TV, though truth be told it rarely does anything other than play media via Plex or Netflix,” said Casey Liss. “That being said, it does a phenomenal job at both.”

“I have every set-top box on the market and not even the lack of 4K support can stop Apple TV from being my favorite,” said Christina Warren. “If they could lower the price to $100 they would be selling even more—but as it stands, it’s the product I use the most after my iPhone and Mac.”

Cloud Services

Grade: C (average score: 3.1, median score 3, last year: C-/D+)

So here’s a surprise. Attitudes toward iCloud and Apple’s cloud services in general seem to be turning around—although there’s still plenty of suspicion to go around.

“Are Apple cloud services finally good? That’s the question I asked myself,” said Christina Warren. “The answer is ‘almost.’”

“The core services have really improved their reliability this past year,” said Rich Mogull. “iCloud Drive and Photo Library just work. Even Apple Music has been reliable and usable.”

“The core services have functioned well, but progress has been slow on obvious potential improvements, especially for Apple Music usability and Photos features on the Mac,” said Marco Arment.

“I think iCloud Drive is quietly becoming something that works for a large proportion of Apple’s customer base, even if it doesn’t satisfy the nerds,” said Fraser Speirs

“It’s difficult to provide a unifying comment on the overall state of Apple services,” said Federico Viticci. “They still feel too disconnected from each other with varying degrees of success… They’re getting better at services, perhaps too slowly.”

“Apple is slowly improving on services but as we become more dependent on them, the pace of improvement has to pick up,” said Rene Ritchie.

HomeKit (Home Automation/Internet of Things)

Grade: D+ (average score: 2.4, median score 2, last year: D)

Our panel seems to think that Apple’s smart home initiative has improved a bit from last year, but remains unimpressed overall.

“This is a thing I don’t want Apple to spend its time on,” said Brent Simmons.

“HomeKit offerings continue to trickle out too slowly, and Apple has no answer in sight to the Amazon Echo and Google Home,” said Marco Arment. “Apple’s best hope for home automation is that it doesn’t take off, which is a terrible place to be.”

“My home automation system still requires some hacks to work with Siri, but the integration between disparate protocols is starting to make it possible to have hardware from different manufacturers integrate as a whole,” said Brett Terpstra.

“HomeKit is one thing that I think Apple knocked out of the park this year,” said Josh Centers. “I’m now heavily invested in HomeKit technology and recommend it to friends.”

“HomeKit is promising, but a year behind where I suspect Apple would like support to be,” said Rich Mogull. “There is still too much complexity.”

“I have various smart devices, and not one of them integrates with Apple’s stuff,” said Lex Friedman. “Meanwhile, my Echo can control just about everything in my damn house.”

“The Internet of things is still a hot mess,” said Katie Floyd. “I have a smart thermostat, smart plugs, a smart doorbell, smart lights and none of them work well with each other. Amazon has done a much better job of integrating, and the Echo has become my preferred device for interacting with all my smart home devices.

“They introduced the Home app and I have nothing that takes advantage of it and no compelling use case for any of it,” said John Moltz.

“This year, I bought a few HomeKit compatible things just to try it,” said Dan Frakes. “So now I have a little island of HomeKit stuff and a whole bunch of stuff that’s compatible with Amazon’s Alexa ecosystem. That’s kind of the smart home market in a nutshell right now.”

Hardware reliability

Grade: A- (average score: 4.1, median score 4, last year: A)

The story here is that there was more or less no story. (Given what happened to Samsung, perhaps no news is good news?)

“In general, I feel that hardware quality and reliability has been one of Apple’s strongest points,” said Dan Moren.

“I believe that this remains one of Apple’s core strengths, even if they don’t talk about it much,” said Rick LePage. “I remain amazed to see how good their hardware seems, and how friends who’ve come to Apple from Windows feel as though the hardware is what makes it.”

Still, there were also notes of caution: “The fact that both the ‘touch disease’ problem and the issue with unexpected shutdowns are afflicting older iPhones suggests to me that Apple isn’t thinking that these devices will be used for more than a year or two at most,” said Adam Engst.

“It’s disheartening to read story after story about MacBook Pros having graphics issues, iPhone 6s having battery issues, iPhone 6 Plus touch bug… I hope the hardware quality isn’t slipping,” said Susie Ochs.

Software quality

Grade: B- (average score: 3.4, median score 3, last year: C+)

The topic of the quality of Apple’s software has been a huge one in previous years, but in 2016 it seemed to take a backseat to other issues. Which is not to say our panel didn’t have trepidation.

“Things aren’t as ugly as they were in the past, but I still feel like we’re not in the Snow Leopard glory days,” said Casey Liss.

“Mixed bag across the platforms, but overall an improvement from the past year or two,” said Rich Mogull.

“Considerably better than years ago thanks to the optimization that went into iOS 9 and iOS 10,” said Federico Viticci. “Still not perfect, still room to improve, but not as traumatic as iOS 7 and 8 were.”

“While Apple’s core OSes are stable and secure, I think the company could be doing a lot with first-party apps to make them more appealing,” said podcaster and writer Stephen Hackett.

“The operating systems got good updates, but I wasn’t impressed by the new Photos or any of the changes to iTunes,” said Susie Ochs. “I’ve scaled back my reliance on every Apple app this year except Notes, which I’m actually using more.”

“Mac, iOS, and watchOS software quality wasn’t perfect this year, but they were pretty good relative to recent years,” said Marco Arment. “But tvOS is still rough, with many bugs and performance problems.”

“Improved in 2016 over a pretty poor 2015,” said James Thomson. “Heading in the right direction at least.”

“I’m not saying everything’s perfect, but Apple has shipped a number of significantly better products this year: iOS 10, Swift Playgrounds and the iWork 3.0 collaboration features are particular stand-outs,” said Fraser Speirs.

Then again… “The annual macOS upgrade cycle must die,” said Rob Griffiths. Brent Simmons said, “Everything is getting more complex and harder to use, while bugs are easy to find.” Or as Kirk McElhearn put it: “Everything sucks, but most of it works.”

Developer relations

Grade: C+ (average score: 3.1, median score 3, last year: D)

Apple’s relationship with its third-party developers has frequently been full of drama and angst, but in our panel’s estimation, Apple seriously upped its game on this front in 2016. You can probably chalk a lot of that up into changes at the App Store.

“Phil Schiller’s transition to leading the App Store has brought many welcome improvements,” said Marco Arment. “But communication is still poor, the Dash situation ended poorly, and search ads have been controversial and alienating for many indie developers,” said Marco Arment.

“As a developer, 2016 has been a vastly improved year,” said Brett Terpstra. “App Store reviews are starting to happen for me in hours instead of days or weeks, and communication surrounding any issues has been very helpful without even using up support incidents.”

“I think the App Store situation is improving, but still has far to go,” said John Gruber.

“The Swift team is notably engaging,” said Brent Simmons.

Environmental and social issues

Grade: A- (average score: 4.2, median score 4, last year: A)

In the past Apple’s focus on environmentalism has taken the lead in the discussions of this category, but this year there was an awful lot of focus on its stance on customer privacy that led it to clash quite publicly with the FBI.

“Tim Cook’s handling of the FBI phone-unlocking controversy was stellar, and may well go down as a highlight of Cook’s tenure as CEO,” said Marco Arment.

“One word: Privacy,” said Rich Mogull. “Apple faced down a massive challenge to our civil rights from the U.S. and other governments and fully held their own. This battle isn’t even close to over yet but it’s hard to see their position as anything other than courage at this point. The situation more than moved past them gaining some marginal competitive advantage through better privacy.”

“I was tremendously impressed by Apple’s willingness to stand up to the FBI with regard to hacking into iPhones; that took guts and Tim Cook did a fine job,” said Adam Engst.

“No one seems to care about these things as much as Apple,” said Federico Viticci. “Major respect on all fronts here.”

Fraser Speirs applauded Apple’s championing of the Everyone Can Code initiative: “It’s hard to overstate how important it is for iOS that Apple provide some tools for schools to teach ‘coding’ and they’re really putting a lot of effort behind this.”

As for diversity at Apple and on stage at Apple events? There, there was skepticism.

“Apple’s presentations this year were better in terms of diversity,” said John Moltz. “That was nice to see, although the company still has a long way to go in diversity of its upper management.”

“Their diversity stats seem to barely be shifting year over year,” said Aleen Simms. “I’d love to see them implement paid internship and mentorship programs for underrepresented minorities. I know leadership turnover is low, but I hope to see more types of people represented there soon, too.”

Final Thoughts

At the end of the survey, I asked my panelists if they had any parting words about Apple’s 2016. And believe it or not, many of them still had more to say…

“As an Apple user and someone who makes their living on the Mac, it was a horrid year for Apple,” said Rob Griffiths.

“I’ve been using Apple computers since 1980, and this is the first year where I feel like Apple is just another company rather than the computer that delighted me through all these decades,” said Brent Simmons. “It feels like Apple is no longer the company for people who make things.”

“This is a company that has lost touch with its users,” said Kirk McElhearn. “They’re harming their reputation with long-time users, they’re killing themselves in the ‘pro’ sector, where Apple used to be the main provider, and even ‘average’ users are starting to question whether it’s worth buying Apple products.”

“In baseball, you’d call something like this a rebuilding year,” said Dan Moren. “It feels like a lot of dominos are being set up, but the company isn’t yet ready to knock them all down… If 2017 is to be a capitalization of work done on the down low in 2016, then it seems like the company is well positioned to have an exciting year ahead of it.”

“It feels from the outside as if the talent is spread too thin across the existing products, and whatever else is parked in mysterious R&D labs,” said James Thomson.

“Though it seems like many pundits are getting ever-more-perturbed, I think things are in a decent state,” said Casey Liss. “Apple can always do better, but the sky isn’t falling.”

“One of the most concerning trends for Apple in 2016 is their inability to deliver,” said Katie Floyd. “For a company the size and value of Apple not being able to manage their inventory and timely deliver products is unacceptable and embarrassing. Clearly something has gone very wrong given the drought of Mac updates, the new MacBook Pros have long shipping times and it is inexcusable that the AirPods missed the holiday season…. This is a trend that cannot continue without serious consequences for the company.”

“I feel like Apple’s currently coasting,” said Aleen Simms. “They need to either start moving faster or provide some big, exciting new hardware and software features soon or people are going to lose faith.”

“It’s possible we’re living with a new Apple, one that will still make great products and do really well, but won’t blow the doors off the industry the way it used to,” said John Moltz. “If that’s the case, that’s OK, but then maybe they’d have the time to deliver some new desktop Macs.”

“All great companies struggle with who they are over time, and they have periods where it’s hard for them to connect with their audience,” said Rick LePage. “It seems as though Apple is in that place right now…. This is a company that has had one of the greatest boom cycles of any modern company I can think of, and I can’t imagine them being turned into a bit player in any way. I do think, however, that Apple needs to figure out how to reconnect with their diverse audiences of today, the ones that they’ve been able to connect with in the past over phones, Macs and music.”

The panel

I didn’t vote on the panel. I invited a bunch of people to vote, and not all of them did. The panelists who voted were: Shahid Kamal Ahmad, Marco Arment, Shawn Blanc, Jeff Carlson, Josh Centers, Adam Engst, Tonya Engst, Katie Floyd, Dan Frakes, Lex Friedman, Rob Griffiths, John Gruber, Stephen Hackett, Rick LePage, Casey Liss, Roman Loyola, Kirk McElhearn, Rich Mogull, John Moltz, Dan Moren, Susie Ochs, Dan Provost, Rene Ritchie, Brent Simmons, Aleen Simms, John Siracusa, David Smith, David Sparks, Fraser Speirs, Brett Terpstra, Ben Thompson, James Thomson, Michael Tsai, Khoi Vinh, Federico Viticci, Christina Warren, and Gabe Weatherhead. A collection of panelist verbatim comments on the survey, quoted here, is also available.

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