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Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Apple in 2020: The Six Colors report card

Tim Cook, photo by Apple

It’s time for our annual look back on Apple’s performance during the past year, as seen through the eyes of writers, editors, developers, podcasters, and other people who spend an awful lot of time thinking about Apple.

This is the sixth year that I’ve presented this survey to a hand-selected group. They were prompted with 12 different Apple-related subjects, and asked to rate them on a scale from 1 to 5 and optionally provide text commentary per category. I received 55 replies, with the average results as shown below:

average score chart

Since I used largely the same survey as in previous years, I was able to track the change in my panel’s consensus opinion on all but one question compared to previous years. The net changes between 2019 and 2020 surveys is displayed below:

score changes

Read on for category-by-category grades, trends, and commentary from the panelists.

Mac

Grade: A (average score: 4.7, median score 5, last year: B)

grading chart

The arrival of Apple silicon was met with universal praise. As Dan Moren put it, “It was a great year for the Mac.”

John Gruber said, “This one is easy. The M1 Macs mark the best moment in Mac hardware history. Apple silicon is that big a deal.”

John Siracusa said, “If you’re not going to give Apple top marks now, then what are you saving your praise for? Daring new Mac designs will have to wait for 2021 or later, but for now we can all rejoice in the unmitigated good of the M1-based Macs. Hallelujah!”

Glenn Fleishman said, “It’s probably Apple’s greatest trick in the history of the Mac, if not the company, to ship a new system that is absolutely absurdly faster…. these are transformative models.”

Stephen Hackett said, “Apple silicon is a watershed moment for the Mac.”

Charles Arthur said, “Apple silicon means there’s no other mark possible. A once-per-generation leap in capability, for the same price, with more to come.”

Christina Warren said, “With Apple silicon, Apple has achieved the rare feat of making insane-sounding promises and then actually keeping them! Not only do the machines perform as promised, the software transition via Rosetta 2 is almost mind-boggling good.”

Harry McCracken said, “The M1 chip and Rosetta 2 are among Apple’s biggest triumphs ever from a technical standpoint.”

Shahid Kamal Ahmad said, “Those of us who doubted Apple’s commitment to the Mac have been humbled. This might just be the biggest breakthrough in power in the Mac’s long history.”

Beyond the general praise for the first Macs to use Apple silicon, there was a lot of first-hand praise from those who bought the new systems.

Alex Cox said, “It’s very strange that sometimes I grab my new MacBook Air because SO many tiny day to day things are significantly faster than using my iMac Pro.”

Dan Moren said, “Upgrading from my 2014 MacBook Air to a new M1 model was a no-brainer. Combined with the end of the butterfly keyboard, Apple has re-established itself as the top player in laptop hardware.”

Dan Provost said, “I have the M1 MacBook Air and it’s one of my favorite Apple products in the past several years.”

Rich Mogull said, “My cats absolutely hate my M1 MacBook Pro. They sit on the cold, soft, keyboard and look at my like ‘WTF? How am I supposed to get warm?'”

Not that there isn’t more to do, in terms of simplifying the Mac product lineup and revising a bunch of long-in-the-tooth Mac models.

Casey Liss said, “Some Macs have been around for a long time — I’m looking at you, iMac — and are more than due for an upgrade.”

Christina Warren said, “The lineup is just as muddled as last year. It’s too confusing to have three different types of 13-inch laptops.”

Roman Loyola said, “Looking forward to new designs and features to go along with Apple silicon in 2021.”

The scores and accolades were all the more impressive because in general, the panel was not particularly impressed with Apple’s work on macOS in 2020.

Christina Warren said, “macOS continues to evolve in ways that are frustrating to me as a longtime Mac user/lover. Catalina was one of the worst macOS releases ever and I’m still unwilling to upgrade to Big Sur on my main container.”

Paul Kafasis said, “Catalina was never very good and Big Sur has its own share of issues.”

Jessica Dennis said, “Annual major version releases do not need to be a thing! Take some time and make it good!”

James Thomson said, “I have to subtract one point for taking the already not great Catalina and making it objectively worse in many ways, and the iOS-apps-on-Mac feature of the M1 Macs is quite disappointing.”

Lex Friedman said, “Big Sur makes me angry every single day, because of one word: Notification Center. Wait, that’s two words. But seriously, I hate the new Notification Center, and I think the designers involved should feel bad.”

John Gruber said, “I think it’s fair to say we all have some gripes about certain visual aspects of the Big Sur user interface, but all of my issues are cosmetic. Structurally, Big Sur debuted as a more stable, more reliable OS than 10.15 Catalina ever was.

Dan Provost said, “Even though there are many details to be nitpicked, I generally like the visual refresh in Big Sur.”

Stephen Hackett said, “I think that overall, the design changes in Big Sur are an improvement over what we had before, but there are some rough edges to file down over the coming releases.”

But in general, the sentiment was that Apple has truly re-engaged with the Mac and that the Mac’s future is bright.

David Sparks said, “Remember when it felt like the Mac was lingering into obsolescence just a few years ago? The Apple silicon team must have been laughing at that.”

Gabe Weatherhead said, “Apple has really regained some sense of direction with the Mac and I like where we are headed.”

Steven Troughton-Smith said, “You can clearly see the foundation stones for the next several decades of the Mac slotting into place, and it’s thrilling to see this kind of revolution on the Mac again after so many years of quiet evolution.”

iPhone

Grade: A (average score: 4.3, median score 4, last year: A-)

grading chart

The iPhone is Apple’s most important product, but given the seismic changes in the Mac in 2020, the panel was a bit more restrained with its praise—though the iPhone still managed an A grade.

Rene Ritchie said, “Splitting low cost from small size with separate iPhone SE and iPhone 12 mini models is going to take a while to process, and 5G seems to be as much dead weight as accelerant right now, but overall the 12 series is a solid, steady update.”

Jeff Carlson said, “Surprise: I really like the iPhone 12 redesign. As in, I notice it feels more comfortable in hand every day. I’ve never used a case, and the rounded designs didn’t bother me, even as others complained about how slick they were. But something about the size and feel of the 12 Pro just feels right. Also noteworthy, from a photography standpoint, is the ProRAW format. Clever implementation.”

Allison Sheridan said, “From the Mini to the Max, all iPhones having the same processing power was fantastic.”

Rosemary Orchard said, “The flat sides on the iPhone are amazing, and MagSafe genuinely makes my life easier in so many ways.”

Harry McCracken said, “The new iPhones aren’t transcendent upgrades, but they’re certainly solid, and there are now more iPhones aimed at more tastes than ever—almost all of them with 5G. MagSafe is clever, though much of the benefit will come once it’s reflected in more products. iOS 14 is a nice, meaty software update.”

Steven Aquino said, “The hybrid iPhone 5/iPad Pro design language of the iPhone 12 line is a case study in why accessible hardware matters just as much as accessible software. Being legally blind, I’m in the Max Club forever. The sheer size of the screen outweighs any ergonomic reservations I have about using an aircraft carrier of a smartphone. The extra camera goodies are just the proverbial icing on the cake for me.”

Benjamin Mayo said, “I think the iPhone 12 mostly coasts off the back of the previous model’s wins. The lack of high-refresh rate displays on the pro models stings, and the unfortunate state of affairs vis a vis 2020 and Face ID is also to the iPhone’s detriment.

John Gruber said, “I have one major complaint about iPhone in 2020: the iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max are too heavy. But even that’s more of a wish than a complaint. We finally got a small iPhone again with the 12 Mini, and it’s a great device — a technical peer to the regular-sized iPhone 12 in every regard but (understandably) battery life.”

John Moltz said, “This is slightly personal but I finally got the iPhone I’ve been waiting for for four years: the iPhone 12 mini. Which is probably good because if analytics firms are to be believed, it’s not selling that well so it’ll probably be the last small phone Apple makes for another four years.”

Gabe Weatherhead said, “The iPhone is no longer surprising. It’s an amazing device but in 2020 Apple continued to refine and polish without much innovation.”

Nick Heer said, “The five new phones released in 2020 made for the easiest product line to understand and the hardest to choose from. They are all very good for specific reasons. This is the best iPhone lineup in years.

John Siracusa said, “When the iPhones are good every single year, it can get a little boring. But it’s not easy to make a great product every year, let alone a whole line of great products, all while keeping up with new technologies like 5G, steadily improving the cameras/sensors, increasing performance, and adding software features. The new iPhone mini is a perfect addition to the family, even if it trails in sales compared to its larger siblings. Let’s hope Apple values product diversification over pure profits.”

Jessica Dennis said, “The only complaint I have about the new iPhones is that I wish the Mini version had the same camera as the Pro. I realize this may be an ‘I want everything in one bag. But I don’t want the bag to be heavy’ situation — but I wish it anyway.”

Joe Kissell said, “The cameras keep getting better, but my old camera was fine. 5G exists now but doesn’t improve my life in any way. There’s nothing wrong with the latest iPhone models, but also nothing bold, risky, exciting, or so useful I can’t live without it. It feels like it’s been a long time since there was an iPhone like that.”

Christina Warren said, “I think the lineup for the iPhone is now a bit muddled. I appreciate the iPhone 12 mini but it’s odd to see it the same year as the new iPhone SE 2020. And I’m not sure if we need two different versions of the iPhone Pro. If it were me, Apple would sell the iPhone 12, the 12 Mini, and the iPhone 12 Pro Max. Cut the SE and the non-Max Pro. Too much choice isn’t always a good thing.”

Joe Macirowski said, “ProRAW is the next best thing to default camera apps or third party app ‘lenses’ – and they shipped the feature with cameras good enough that you want the RAW.”

Robert Carter said, “I am particularly excited about some of the new hardware accessibility options.”

On the iOS 14 side, there was general praise for the addition of home screen widgets.

John Gruber said, “iOS 14 is a really nifty update, with a focus on enthusiast/power user features like Shortcuts and home screen widgets. You can see the bones of a conceptual system that will last for decades, just like MacOS has.”

Nick Heer said, “iOS 14 is a tremendous update as well. Widgets are a welcome addition to everyone’s home screen and have spurred a joyous customization scene. iOS 13 was more stable than Catalina for me, but iOS 14 has been noticeably less buggy.”

Brian Mattucci said, “The quality of life changes in iOS 14 are exciting – home screen widgets, compact phone calls and Siri, picture in picture, pinned conversations and in-line replies in Messages.”

Benjamin Mayo said, “iOS 14 widgets were incredibly well done, and elevate the experience for all iPhone users.”

Which is all great, unless you’re being bitten by a nasty bug.

Casey Liss said, “Software is still a problem. I haven’t been able to reliably receive group MMS messages since upgrading, which is very frustrating when you’re part of a family that is half Android.”

iPad

Grade: B (average score: 3.7, median score 4, last year: B+)

score chart

The big news in the iPad in 2020 was the introduction of the Magic Keyboard and cursor support, both of which were praised by the panel. Also, the new iPad Air (with iPad Pro-like features) was a welcome addition, though many panelists wondered about the lack of strong differentiation between it and the iPad Pros, which got an almost invisible update early in the year. But most disappointment was reserved for iPadOS, which was perceived as still having a lot of unsolved problems that limit its power.

Lex Friedman said, “The iPad Pro and the iPad Air, the Magic Keyboard… These things are gifts. I use my iPad Pro more than ever before. It’s an email-Twitter-streaming-crossword-gaming-writing-reading device, and I love it.”

Myke Hurley said, “The Magic Keyboard is the saving grace of the year. iPadOS 14 was a letdown, and there were no meaningful iPad Pro hardware updates. The new iPad Air is a great looking machine too, but as an iPad Pro user, it was a bit of a simple year.”

Brian Mattucci said, “It was a great year for iPad. The Magic Keyboard has transformed the 2020 iPad into my primary computer. It’s puzzling that Home Screen widgets and the App Library didn’t quite make it into iPadOS. I hope this is addressed soon. I’m also hoping we’ll see apps like Final Cut, Logic, and Xcode on iPadOS this year.”

Harry McCracken said, “For me, the big news was not a new iPad but the Magic Keyboard, which—coupled with an iPad Pro—might be the closest thing Apple will give us to a touchscreen laptop. The new iPad Air makes formerly iPad Pro-only features more accessible. IPadOS 14 is a bit of a disappointment, since it doesn’t even have all of iOS 14’s new stuff, like full support for the new widgets.”

Casey Liss said, “The last thing I want for my iPad is for it to become some sort of mutant faux-laptop. The best thing I did for my iPad was get it a Magic Keyboard so it could become some sort of mutant faux-laptop. The Magic Keyboard has made my iPad dramatically better to use. I don’t use the trackpad often, it is… well…. magical to have when I need it. Using the trackpad makes Screens, for example, so much nicer. The new iPad hardware is also nice, though I very much wonder where the iPad Pro will go in the future, since the iPad Air is so darn strong now.”

John Siracusa said, “I can’t help but feel like the iPad has lost some of its sheen with the introduction of the M1 Macs. It turns out that being fast, silent, and having long battery life aren’t attributes that are exclusive to the iPad. On a level performance playing field, it’s up to the iPad to win based on its remaining unique capabilities. The hardware is as satisfying as ever, but the software still stands in the way of the iPad becoming all it can be.”

Dave Hamilton said, “2020’s 4th gen iPad Air really moves the needle. For someone (like me) who doesn’t ‘need’ an iPad Pro, I’ve always appreciated what Apple has done with the iPad Air and the iPad mini. And now, again, the iPad Air is the iPad targeted at me. It’s like an iPad Pro in iPad Air’s price range!”

John Gruber said that the Magic Keyboard and cursor support “is the single biggest addition to iPad in memory — it completely changes the number of tasks and sort of apps iPad is ‘good for.’ I am absolutely certain that the addition of excellent mouse pointer support throughout iPadOS changed my daily routine — I spend far more time using mine now because I’m far more productive for things like email and messaging and actual writing.”

Charles Arthur said, “Still way ahead of rivals, and now just competing against itself (and the Mac). The Magic Keyboard is wonderful, if pricey (and heavy), while the addition of mouse support in iPadOS has been a boon. The question is, given the M1 MacBook Air, why would you buy an iPad with a Magic Keyboard? Once again this looks stuck between two chairs.”

Carolina Milanesi said, “The new iPad Air is the strongest of the products we saw this year, as it allows for a very rich experience very similar to the iPad Pro without compromising on the most important features all at a much more affordable price. I still believe there is more than Apple could be doing on the iPadOS side to improve multitasking.”

Stephen Hackett said, “The iPad Air’s update is impressive in a vacuum, but leaves real questions on the table concerning the future of the iPad Pro, which received the smallest of updates early in the year. Apple still seems to be figuring out what it means for the iPad to have its own operating system. The addition of trackpad support — and the accompanying Magic Keyboard — are fantastic, but the multi-tasking paradigm in iPadOS is still too confusing and too invisible for a lot of users to grasp. Beyond that, the iPad continues to be held back by its roots in iOS, Apple’s desire to keep macOS more complex, or both. If Apple has a true vision for the iPad as a laptop replacement, it’s high time we see it.”

David Sparks said, “The iPad is over ten years old and the software, particularly core operating system features, are not where they should be. There are a lot of people that want to use the iPad more but bang their head into limitations that should have been solved years ago.”

Nick Heer said, “Despite all of the improvements in 2020, I remain hungry for more. This is only the second year the iPad has had iPadOS and, while it is becoming more of its own thing, its roots in a smartphone operating system are still apparent in a way that sometimes impedes its full potential.”

Christina Warren said, “I’m still waiting for Apple to really deliver on the promises of iPadOS. We’re so close, but when we consider that the Apple silicon developer transition kit was essentially an iPad Pro in a Mac mini chassis, it makes it clear how much the hardware still isn’t being used by software. I realize this will probably never happen, but I would love it if we could get ARM Mac Apps running on the iPad Pro, similar to how iOS apps run in compatibility mode on the M1 devices.”

Watch and Wearables

Panelists were asked to rate the Apple Watch and also Wearables generally.

Wearables: Grade: A- (average score: 4.0, median score 4, last year: A)

Watch: Grade: B+ (average score: 3.8, median score 4, last year: A-)

grading chart

2020 was perceived as a treading-water year for Apple Watch by most panelists, and watchOS 7 was also lukewarmly received. But there was a lot of appreciation for Apple’s constant iteration and improvement on the Apple Watch. Panelists were much more enthusiastic about AirPods, though there was a mixed reaction to the new AirPods Max.

John Gruber said, “My only complaint about AirPods is that they remain so expensive. I’d really like to see Apple get them down to $99, or at least closer. It’s a bit odd, to me, that they haven’t come down in price at all since they were introduced. For all the millions of happy AirPods users out there, there’s a lot of resistance to spending $159 ‘just for headphones.'”

Carolina Milanesi said, “Apple Watch is a solid upgrade, but the more interesting product for me was the Watch SE and the new family functionality. Both help expand the addressable market for Watch.”

Charles Arthur said, “The AirPods Max feel like designers skittering off a bend, trying to go too fast and ignoring some of the constraints needed to succeed with such a product.”

Benjamin Mayo said, “Apple Watch Series 6 is a strong hardware showing, and keeps Apple atop the smartwatch market. watchOS 7 was mediocre, with the native sleep tracking being somewhat disappointing, and hand washing detection being too unreliable to keep enabled. Apple introduced a slew of new watch faces this year—cool, but the platform sorely needs to embrace a ‘Watch Face App Store’.”

John Siracusa said, “The entire planet is not yet convinced that it needs a smart watch, ostensibly Apple’s ‘most personal product.’ So while the iPhone’s continued greatness is sufficient for that product line, the Apple Watch must do more. It must explain itself to customers before it can even get a chance to impress. AirPods of all shapes and sizes continue to be pretty great. It’d be nice to get some of the prices down, though.”

Christina Warren said, “AirPods continue to be great. Even with no hardware updates to the buds, they continue to be such a huge hit. AirPods Max hit at the very end of the year and they are very nice, but priced a bit too high for them to take off in the same way. Still, Apple has wearables on lock.”

Alex Cox said, “I think both the Apple Watch and AirPods (especially the Max) suffered delays along with a lack of innovation. I love the AirPods Max, but there are tiny things that just don’t feel quite right, and not just the useless case included to ‘protect’ them.”

Myke Hurley said, “Overall I was left disappointed by the Series 6 – I do not think Apple did a compelling job of telling me why I want a blood oxygen sensor, especially considering how well they’ve sold me on previous sensors and their benefits. I think that the SE is also overpriced for the feature set. The AirPods Max are a fantastic product that I love using every day. They are comfortable and sound fantastic. I am a fan of the device switching features for all my AirPods, while not always perfect, most of the time it’s seamless.”

Adam Engst said, “The Apple Watch and watchOS continue to evolve in nice ways, and although the blood oxygen sensor may not be a huge win for many people, it’s nice to see Apple adding capabilities along these lines. Perhaps we’ll see some innovative work on detecting illness before it’s obvious in the future. The Apple Watch SE again brought newer technology into a lower-cost package, which is more welcome than just keeping older models available for sale.”

Nick Heer said, “Only one new AirPods model was introduced in 2020 but it was big. The AirPods Max certainly live up to their name in weight alone. AirPods continue to be the iconic wireless headphone in the same way that white earbuds were to the iPod.”

John Moltz said, “The new Watches are good devices but the SE feature set is fairly confusing for an average buyer. AirPods Max are nice headphones at a price designed to make sure that I will never, ever own them.”

Robert Carter said, “I love the AirPods Max. They do for audio what the camera does for video.”

Marco Arment said, “Apple Watch had incremental improvements in both hardware and software, with Family Setup and the Watch SE reaching new customers, and moderate but appreciated watchOS improvements for developers.”

Jean MacDonald said, “The AirPods Pro have gotten me through the pandemic. I bought them for noise-cancelling during travel, but they have made it possible to drown out the noise of my neighbors when I need to. I’ve also used them for pandemic group TV watching, using them to isolate the TV sound from my phone conversations. Ingenious design that brings me delight.”

Steven Troughton-Smith said, “Apple Watch is improving steadily, but I haven’t got the impression that the introduction of the App Store & SwiftUI last year made much of an impact on its software ecosystem. Third-party watch faces are indeed the missing link, and though we are seemingly no closer to that becoming a reality, the architecture of Widgets on iOS (codenamed ‘Chrono’, of all things) gives me some hope that Apple does have a solution in mind to bring third-party SwiftUI-based faces to watchOS.”

Apple TV

Grade: F (average score: 2.1, median score 2, last year: D+)

grading chart

It’s the first failing grade in the history of the Six Colors Apple Report Card! Last year’s D+ wasn’t great, but now Apple’s aging TV box is going to have to repeat the class in order to graduate.

Jessica Dennis said, “The Apple TV is stagnating. If anyone asked me which box to buy, I would recommend some version of a Roku over an Apple TV just about every time.”

Joe Kissell said, “Yet another year without new Apple TV hardware, and this feels like an area where Apple could still do great, innovative things if they had the will.”

Adam Engst said, “Apple Fitness+ provides something of a new reason to use an Apple TV. Otherwise, the hardware is stagnant and tvOS has barely changed in years.”

Nick Heer said, “The product that seems like Apple’s lowest priority. The two Apple TV models on sale today were released three and five years ago, and have remained unchanged since. It isn’t solely a problem of device age or cost; it is that these products feel like they were introduced for a different era. The remote still sucks.”

Paul Kafasis said, “It just feels stupid to pay full price for a device introduced over three years ago. In a year when folks were at home, streaming more than ever, it was very surprising to me that Apple didn’t have any new Apple TV hardware. As far as tvOS goes, it’s good, but I don’t think the 2020 updates have done much for me.”

Devindra Hardawar said, “It would have been nice to see some newer hardware, but the Apple TV remains the best overall streaming box.”

Rich Mogull said, “The hardware has aged but it still offers excellent performance for 4K content. But tvOS is the weakest of Apple’s operating systems. It gets the job done, but is too convoluted a fair number of features are deeply wonky.”

Gabe Weatherhead said, “I’m going to be harsh on the AppleTV experience because Apple continues to waste their lead. 2020 should have been the year of AppleTV, with so many people stuck at home binging on TV shows and movies. This category is a terrific reminder that even one of the most valuable companies in the world can’t figure out what their strength is.”

Stephen Hackett said, “I really don’t understand why Apple still charges what it does for the Apple TV 4K. It’s downright embarrassing when cross-shopped with devices from Amazon, Roku and even Google. In this world with Apple TV+ content, AirPlay 2 and even HomeKit support on many other platforms, Apple’s hardware entry in this market is harder and harder to justify.”

John Gruber said, “It’s very odd to me that Apple clearly cares a lot about TV content, but seemingly doesn’t have a coherent strategy for the hardware.”

Lex Friedman said, “I don’t understand why people buy Apple TV. Roku and Fire TV and even TiVo Stream 4k are all better and cheaper. I swear it.”

Marco Arment said, “Is anyone happy about buying an Apple TV right now?”

Casey Liss said, “I love my Apple TV — I’m even a bit of a remote apologist! — but to not have updated it in over 1200 days is ridiculous.”

Josh Centers said, “Do Apple TV and tvOS even have a future? With the Apple TV app being put on more platforms, it feels like Apple is giving up.”

John Siracusa said, “Just fix the remote already, Apple. It didn’t take this long to get the Apology Mouse after the iMac’s puck-mouse misstep, and that was Steve Jobs’s darling. What’s the hold-up now? Oh, and while you’re at it, maybe take a look at the competitive landscape of TV streaming boxes and decide where the Apple TV is supposed to fit in. Right now, it’s in limbo: a product with low-end features at a high-end price. (And, of course, that terrible remote. Yeesh.)”

Harry McCracken said, “Still seems like a part of the Apple puzzle that would benefit from more ambition and a really major upgrade.”

Services

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

chart

Let’s get the love out for “Ted Lasso” right now. Many panelists reported that it was worth a 5 out of 5 on that score alone. It seems only right that a show about the most positive man on the planet would help Apple’s services grade go from a B to a B+. (And of course the services grade ends in a plus!)

Apple’s bundles also got a lot of love, though not universally. It does seem, though, that an area of deep trouble for Apple is slowly turning into a strength.

John Siracusa said, “Apple One really helps smooth over the rough edges of Apple’s nascent services. Service bundles are commonplace for a reason. They shield individual services from the scrutiny they’d get when sold separately; they give young services room to grow. Apple TV+ is steadily climbing the hill of quality content, providing cover for the new Fitness+ to prove itself (and News+ to perhaps find itself). The iCloud storage tiers are still overpriced, though, bundle or no bundle.”

Josh Centers said, “Apple certainly pushed a lot of services this year, but I’m not sure anyone wants them.”

Zac Hall said, “The $29.99/month Apple One Premiere bundle exceeded my expectations. Bravo.”

Rich Mogull said, “What can I say? I’m a fan. Ted Lasso alone makes this a 5. It was the best escape during this pandemic. Fitness+ is an okay start, but really needs a lot of work… mostly support of third party devices like bike sensors.”

Nick Heer said, “No matter whether you look at Apple’s balance sheet or its product strategy, it is clear that it is now fully and truly a services company. New for this year were the well-received Fitness+ workout service and a bevy of new TV+ shows. Apple also rolled out services to a bunch more countries. But this focus on services has not come without its foibles, as Apple aggressively promotes subscriptions throughout its products in advertisements, up-sells, and push notifications to the irritation of anyone who wishes not to subscribe.”

Adam Engst said, “The Services category is all over the map. Apart from ‘Ted Lasso,’ Apple TV+ has been easy to ignore. Apple News+ is a flop. Apple Fitness+ is too new to evaluate. Apple Music continues to work, but isn’t improving in any obvious way. iCloud keeps working. Apple Pay is far more useful than ever before thanks to the pandemic driving contactless payment. AppleCare is the same as always. So I can’t get super excited about Services because it doesn’t feel as though Apple is raising the bar.”

Dan Provost said, “I am ecstatic I now have a way to buy more than 2 TB of iCloud storage, even though the workaround is kludgy (basically forcing me to get an Apple One account and then adding storage to it). Since I am now a Premier subscriber, I started using Apple Music for the first time, and actually quite like it. Regarding Apple TV+, ‘Ted Lasso’ is amazing and justifies the subscription price on its own.”

Myke Hurley said, “We’ve been surprised with Apple’s content offering this year. ‘Ted Lasso’, ‘Mythic Quest’ – they’ve done a great job. Finally there’s a bundle! Fitness+ has had a promising start too.”

Glenn Fleishman said, “All of Apple’s services seemed to actually work and work well for most of the year, while it rolled out improvements, and deployed the Apple One bundle. I felt more comfortable paying what I do, especially with a Family Plan, for what I get, even before Apple One, and much more after. Apple TV+ is a slow burn that keeps getting better as they build out their offerings.”

James Thomson said, “I think there’s an argument to be made that Apple is becoming a little too hungry for services revenue, but they gave us ‘Ted Lasso’ in 2020, and that’s probably worth four stars by itself.”

John Moltz said, “I’d give them a 5 for ‘Ted Lasso’ alone. Honestly, this was the breakout hit that we (and Apple TV+) needed right when we needed it. The Apple One subscription gives you more bang for your buck. I am actually paying more now but I’m also getting a lot more. They got me.”

Marco Arment said, “Most of Apple’s services continue to work boringly and well, as they should. The newer ones have been a mixed bag, with most of them seemingly OK but not being particularly exciting. Apple One, which is humorously three different bundles, makes the buying decision easier for many. We’re also seeing the dark side of the push for services growth as Apple inserts more intrusive promos into more parts of iOS, harming their user experience and angering those who choose not to buy everything Apple offers.”

Christina Warren said, “The Apple One bundle was a great thing for me personally, a person who already subscribed to almost all the services. The sum of all the parts is a compelling part of the ecosystem. I would love Apple Music to copy some of the more viral analytic features from Spotify. The pandemic has affected the Apple TV+ slate significantly — and TV+ will never be able to compete with Disney+ — but ‘Ted Lasso’ was the best new show on television and I hope it wins the Golden Globes and Emmys this year. Fitness+ is a really great service introduction and it hit at the perfect time, now that none of us can go to the gym.”

Dr. Drang said, “I’ve had no trouble with iCloud Drive since switching my main cloud storage to it from Dropbox. Something I would not have thought possible ten years ago.”

Brian Mattucci said, “After years of asking, I’m thrilled that Apple now lets me buy up to 4 TB of iCloud storage. Similarly, I’m glad they finally bundled their services into Apple One. Subscribing to them all individually was a bit messy. I haven’t used Fitness+ yet, but I look forward to seeing it grow. I’ve enjoyed a lot of content on Apple TV+ to the point where I would likely pay for it, at least sporadically, if it weren’t already included in my Apple One bundle.”

Paul Kafasis said, “Apple Pay is great. And contactless! I wonder if we’ll see a long-term spike in usage, just as a result of COVID.”

Aleen Simms said, “I really wish that Apple Fitness+ had micro workouts (eg three minute stretch sessions for office workers) and more accessible workout options (eg chair yoga).”

Alex Cox said, “I’m pleasantly surprised by Apple One along with Fitness+. It’s not just great to get one bill every month; it makes the entire ecosystem feel seamless. I’m even using Apple News+ because of the convenience. Apple Arcade feels like it didn’t get a lot of mainstream press this year, but indie games continue to innovate and bring pleasant surprises to the service.”

Rene Ritchie said, “I love Fitness+ more than I thought I would. Apple One is a good bundle. But the international story hasn’t really changed and that means many Apple customers still feel like second class customers.”

HomeKit

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

grading chart

Apple’s smarthome efforts get a middling grade, but it’s a grade that has improved in four of the last five years. It seems that HomeKit, while still lackluster, is very slowly gaining ground. But many of our panelists still need to add geeky software like Homebridge to make their home devices work the way they want.

Adam Engst said, “Apple didn’t do much, but I think most of what’s interesting about HomeKit is in the accessories. The selection seems to be improving there, and prices are dropping, which is good.”

John Moltz said, “I keep saying that Apple needs to start making its own home automation devices. They keep not doing it.”

Lex Friedman said, “I’m literally configuring a Raspberry Pi to run Homebridge while I fill out this report card, because Apple makes HomeKit ignore other smart home devices. But Homebridge works SO FREAKING WELL that it’s obvious Apple could enable support for MANY more devices out of the box, and chooses not to. That’s dumb.”

John Siracusa said, “It’s pretty amazing that Apple can field a line of ‘home’ products without ever revisiting its decision to get out of the home Wi-Fi market. Not every home needs a smart lock or voice assistant, but Wi-Fi is ubiquitous. If Apple wants to get a foothold in the home, it needs to sell something that everyone needs. The HomePod, mini or regular, ain’t it.”

John Gruber said, “It feels like this whole effort is on the cusp of being more practically useful and less of a hobbyist endeavor. But I think the Home app needs a serious ground-up rethinking, to help expose users to what’s even possible.”

Glenn Fleishman said, “I switched to using HomeKit Secure Video this year, and it’s not perfect, but the fact that it’s a bundled service with 200GB and 2TB iCloud storage levels saves me money. Apple has left the Home app a mess across its platforms. macOS Mojave, Catalina, and Big Sur gradually advanced Home app features, but even Big Sur lacks full configuration and control. iOS 14 and Big Sur vary in what you can do in the Home app for no good reason but a lack of coordination between dev teams.”

Stephen Hackett said, “New features like HomeKit Secure Video are often slow to roll out, and that hasn’t changed in the last year, but in my experience, HomeKit has become much more reliable and predictable over the last few releases.”

Charles Arthur said, “Very quietly, HomeKit is getting built into things, and it’s not a monumental pain making them work.”

Zac Hall said, “Adaptive lighting is the flagship feature for HomeKit advances in 2020, but there is so much more low hanging fruit that isn’t being tackled.”

Dan Moren said, “50 percent of the time, it works every time. I’ve spent a lot of the year wrestling with it, and I have to say that overall I really like it. The main problem is support for it, a lot of which is alleviated by third-party solutions like Homebridge. But HomeKit Secure Video was still wonky in the products I tried it with, and there are a lot of devices that should be natively supported but aren’t. I’m hoping that the Project Connected Home over IP interoperability stuff will improve that in the future.”

Casey Liss said, “HomeKit is still only mostly reliable, and HomeKit-compatible devices are still mostly readily available. It’s rather sad that I still have to run Homebridge in order to get a lot of stuff onto my HomeKit Home. Further, the Home app is… pretty not great. However, overall, I do like HomeKit, and am happy with the features it does have.”

Rosemary Orchard said, “The new sensor overview in the Home app is great, as is HomeKit Secure Video.”

Carolina Milanesi said, “This remains an area where Apple must considerably increase effort, as Google and Amazon continue to cement their presence with a broader set of devices.”

Marco Arment said, “HomeKit continues to work most of the time for most people, but still sometimes breaks in inexplicable and frustrating ways. Hardware support is still minimal, and it still feels like almost nobody at Apple is working on it.”

Alex Cox said, “HomeKit, why won’t you let me love you? My apartment runs on HomeKit, but still at least once a week something breaks. The only thing worse than something not working is not know WHY it won’t work.”

Hardware reliability

Grade: A (average score: 4.5, median score 5, last year: B+)

grading chart

Ding, dong, the butterfly keyboard is finally dead. And with it goes one of the biggest complaints about Apple’s hardware in the last half decade. Beyond that, many panelists noted a common AirPods Pro failure—and commended Apple’s replacement program.

Gabe Weatherhead said, “My new keyboard is still working, so 2020 was definitely a better year for hardware reliability.”

Brent Simmons said, “I got a new MacBook Pro that kernel-panics about once a week.”

Rich Mogull said, “We updated a lot of hardware this year and reliability has been high.”

Christina Warren said, “The keyboard issue was finally put to rest this year and we haven’t seen any other hardware scandals, making it a good year for quality.”

Paul Kafasis said, “Overall, I had no notable hardware problems. However, my mother’s new laptop (purchased in December 2019) was an incredible headache. In one year, it required three trips to Apple due to faulty logic boards. Ultimately, they threw in the towel and provided a full-on replacement machine.”

John Gruber said, “None of my stuff broke so I’m happy. I had a pair of AirPods Pro get the dreaded ‘static during phone calls’ thing, but Apple is doing the right thing with their repair program.”

Harry McCracken said, “Any year not full of stories about flaky, unloved keyboards is a good year.”

Marco Arment said, “The butterfly keyboard is finally, thankfully, completely gone from the lineup. Sucks if you own one, though.”

Dan Provost said, “I had the AirPod Pro rattle / static defect happen, which seems to affect… a lot of people. Thankfully the exchange process was painless. Other than that, hardware reliability seems solid.”

Steven Troughton-Smith said, “Now that the Butterfly Keyboard is out of the picture, there seems little to say about Apple’s hardware reliability anymore — it just works, like it used to. It remains to be seen what kind of first-generation issues might befall the M1-based Macs, but they seem faster, more powerful, quieter, and longer-lasting than ever, and I hope that’s a trend Apple continues”

Nick Heer said, “Overall, an average year for hardware quality, but an improvement in the sense that you can no longer buy an Apple laptop with a defective keyboard design.”

John Siracusa said, “With the butterfly keyboard out of the way, we can all go back to complaining about product design decisions instead of worrying about things outright breaking.”

Software quality

Grade: B- (average score: 3.5, median score 4, last year: D+)

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Scores for Apple’s software quality were all over the place. It was a big grade leap from 2019, which was a rough one for iOS and macOS alike. (And when you look at the history of this score, it’s clear that Apple has taken a “tick-tock” approach to its software.) But still, while some panelists felt Apple turned things around and started going in the right direction, others were still vexed by software problems. Still, even the more positive observers seem to have the attitude that Apple has plenty more work to do on software before they’re satisfied.

(Also, many observers made a point of saying that it’s remarkable that Apple was as productive as it was, shipping numerous software updates via remote work during a pandemic.)

Benjamin Mayo said, “iOS 14 was a pretty big release in terms of new features and debuted to the public without anything notable going awry. Big Sur has been surprisingly stable too, although some UI decisions are baffling.”

Dan Moren said, “Big Sur has definitely had its pain points, especially on M1 Macs, and while I like a lot of the design aesthetic, there are places that it looks just sloppy.”

Marco Arment said, “iOS 14 and watchOS 7 have been very high-quality releases so far. macOS Big Sur is an improvement over Catalina, which isn’t saying much, but macOS quality still has many years of relative neglect to make up for.”

Steve Sheridan said, “After the Catalina dumpster fire was extinguished, things seems to have settled out nicely for mac OS. Big Sur rollout seems to have gone much more smoothly, at least so far.”

Paul Kafasis said, “Apple should slow down their OS updates. Apple should recognize that just fixing bugs, and making things work reliably, and more clearly for users, has tremendous value. Constantly changing the operating systems we use year after year is not beneficial. Big Sur seems more solid than Catalina, so that’s good. iOS is solid overall. But the churn is brutal for developers and for users.”

Joe Kissell said, “On the whole, Big Sur seemed to be significantly less buggy at release than Catalina. But the cumulative weight of old, unfixed bugs gets harder to bear every year.”

Charles Arthur said, “Big Sur, iOS 14 – both been very solid releases from my and others’ experiences. Seems like Apple has found its mojo.”

Zac Hall said, “The Intel to Apple silicon transition has been flawless in terms of supporting my work and avoiding show stopping issues.”

Steven Troughton-Smith said, “It’s hard to believe anything shipped at any quality during the year we’ve just had, but Apple pulled off an astounding feat with the huge strides on iPad and Mac, including a whole new architecture transition and UI redesign. While there may have been some software issues between WWDC until the launch of the new iPhones, for the most part nothing got in my way and I was able to focus on developing & shipping two large new apps instead of fighting with the tools or the OS.”

Rich Mogull said, “I’ve had more issues and crashes this year than in a long time. Especially on macOS.”

Stephen Hackett said, “iOS 14 and macOS Big Sur launched with relative few bugs, but many of Apple’s core apps continue to languish, seemingly due to the company’s aggressive OS release schedule. This opens the doors for third-party developers to sell more powerful apps than the basic ones Apple includes, but many users — myself included — use many, many system apps both on my Mac and iOS devices. Safari seems to be the only core app getting regular attention and new features, and that should change.”

Jessica Dennis said, “More than once I have done everything I could think of only to reboot in despair, and have that fix whatever random weird error condition was plaguing me, at least on the Mac. The iOS side seems to be a bit better, at least.”

Rosemary Orchard said, “SO MANY BUGS. Even in release software. I had to update an Apple TV to the beta today to be able to set it up as a home hub. None of the other devices on that account are running beta software, but otherwise it just hung every time.”

Josh Centers said, “Apple had mostly solid OS releases this year, but macOS is in something of a sad state. Lots of bugs and wonkiness that just isn’t getting fixed.”

Casey Liss said, “Remember when everything ‘just worked’? Goodness, those were the days. I am ever-more-convinced that Apple is having tremendous trouble walking and chewing gum at the same time. With each passing year, I feel like software quality has gotten just that much worse. But now we’re moving from death by a thousand paper cuts to death by a million. All too often, things just don’t quite work. And it’s absolutely infuriating.”

Nick Heer said, “The roller coaster ride continues. 2019? Not good! 2020? Pretty good!”

Brett Terpstra said, “My low rating on this is basically because I have a lot of concerns with Big Sur on Mac. Some of it will improve over time, but some things are, in my opinion, just bad choices, and that’s a bit depressing.”

Dr. Drang said, “Unlike most people, I had much more trouble with iOS 14 than I did with iOS 13. Mail in particular was bad, as mail kept being sent from the wrong account. That, at least, got fixed. My Series 3 Apple Watch is basically unable to keep up with watchOS because the updates are too big for it. I don’t understand how Apple continues to sell the 3.”

Christina Warren said, “I really wish Apple would let go of the yearly OS cycle because I think it’s now giving negative returns. Having either semi-annual feature updates or just going back to a longer release cycle would go a long way toward improving quality and reliability.”

John Siracusa said, “I think Apple has turned the ship around on software quality, but it’s only just started to head back in the correct direction. More progress is needed.”

John Gruber said, “Apple, famously, doesn’t like to explain itself, but the evidence seems clear that they’ve subtly moved to a model where major new OS features are released when they are ready, scattered over the course of the year. They’ve found a better balance between wanting to make big new tentpole feature announcements at WWDC, and shipping those features when they’re actually ready, not just when the 1.0 version of the OS is released.”

Adam Engst said, “2020 was saddled with macOS 10.15 Catalina and iOS 13, both of which were troubled releases, to put it mildly. It seems that Apple has gotten back on track with macOS 11 Big Sur and iOS 14, though.”

Brent Simmons said, “Apple’s software quality should be so very much better. They’re meant to lead the world in software quality — they should be showing us developers and the rest of the industry how it’s done. But there is so much disappointment here. Whenever I contrast with the brilliance of the new ARM Macs I want to cry.”

Developer relations

Grade: C (average score: 3.1, median score 3, last year: B-)

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Talk about a mixed bag. After years of criticism, Apple reduced its App Store cut—but only for small app developers, and only after receiving regulatory scrutiny and being the subject of lawsuits from other developers trying to crack Apple’s exclusive control over iPhone software distribution. There were some high-profile app rejections and controversies, too.

John Siracusa said, “Apple’s ‘street-level’ relationship with developers remains distant and unsatisfying. A big move like reducing the App Store cut from 30% to 15% for most developers is great, but the fundamental power dynamic has not changed. Relying on the benevolence of the powerful does not feel good.”

Dan Moren said, “Riding the knife’s edge here. Apple’s battle with Epic this year is going to have big repercussions on how Apple does business with developers, no matter how it shakes out. I believe the Small Business Program will largely be a net positive for everyone, but it remains to be seen how it will shake out for those developers who are right around that magic $1 million mark. And, of course, there’s still plenty of stupid fights that Apple ends up engaged in that it should just be avoiding. But virtual WWDC was largely a hit, and definitely broadened the accessibility of the platform, which was great.”

Joe Macirowski said, “Remote WWDC Lab worked better than the real thing. I didn’t win a ticket last year. This year I got one of those infamous secrets that’s intentionally omitted from the docs.”

James Thomson said, “I suspect Tim Sweeney will give you a different answer than the millions of developers who just got an unexpected 21.43% pay rise. Not everything has been great with App Review as always, but overall that’s the best news we’ve had in years.”

Charles Arthur said, “It’s been one of those worst of times, best of times things. The rows over the App Store have been important (Hey), stupid but important (Epic), stupid (many self-inflicted things where Apple threatens to remove an app then realises it’s misunderstood). Apple clearly recognises there’s regulatory peril: that it’s likely to be told to lower its cut or to allow other app stores or both, in one or both of its key markets in Europe or the US. There’s also the threat to its huge cash pipeline from having Google as the search default. The move to cut fees for developers with revenue under $1m was smart, but felt reactive – coming after WWDC and the U.S. Congressional hearings.”

Zac Hall said, “Sorry Epic Games, Apple’s Small Business Program is more epic.”

Myke Hurley said, “Yes the 15% cut exists, but what a terrible year for developer relationships. If we would’ve said the cracks were showing before, I think things are starting to crumble. It has been a year of uncertainty, bad decisions, and bad PR management. 2020 has started a new trend of issues that are now bleeding into antitrust.”

Alex Cox said, “I am extremely biased, but I’m so happy developers are going to be able to make more money from the App Store. I also love that iOS/iPad apps can run natively. While they might not be perfect, I wish more developers would make their apps available even if they haven’t been tweaked for the M1 Macs.”

John Gruber said, “You can look at the Hey fiasco right before WWDC and see it as a disaster, the perfect storm illustrating the problems with Apple’s tight control over the App Store, or look at it as an example of the system working. Apple made mistakes, then corrected the mistakes. I think the core problem is that Apple needs to recognize that a happy developer base is an incredible asset for the company. It’s not in Apple’s interests to squeeze every last cent of money out of the App Store. They’ve caught the attention of government regulators around the world, and developers, rightly or wrongly, feel like they’re being squeezed. There’s a palpable sense of resentment. It’s in Apple’s interests to foster a broad community of Apple platform developers. To inspire and encourage developers to rely on Apple’s platforms to build apps that are exclusive to those platforms. Apple benefits promotionally from such exclusivity, and users benefit from apps that are crafted to take advantage of native platform features. But the power dynamics of the App Store are such that developers feel like they need to do the opposite: to build cross-platform apps and systems to avoid relying on Apple. The App Store small business program introduced at the end of the year is a step in the right direction. But just a step.”

Paul Kafasis said, “Apple’s management of their App Stores has been problematic for years, and problems really bubbled up in 2020. For more than a decade, I’ve felt that Apple could solve a tremendous number of problems by not being the sole place to get iOS apps (allowing sideloading), and by not requiring selling through Apple. Apple went the other way in 2020, rent-seeking from all manner of developers in ways that were deeply distasteful, particularly during a pandemic. In addition to a great deal of outcry from developers and users, we saw some large developers like Epic bring a real fight to Apple. This will take a long time to sort out, and all sides look bad in certain ways, but Apple just doesn’t look good in all this. Still, Apple did do some things right as well. Reducing the commission to 15% for smaller developers is the biggest thing, and that’s a clear positive move, full stop. There are many additional improvements they can, and should, consider, but this was a step in the right direction. I hope we’ll see more.”

Stephen Hackett said, “In the light on regulatory scrutiny and skirmishes with developers, it is hard to look at things like the App Store Small Business Program and believe Apple’s motives are pure. It feels like there is reckoning coming.”

Brent Simmons said, “The App Stores are a blight on Apple’s otherwise sunny reputation.”

Brett Terpstra said, “I know not every developer has had a great year with Apple, but for those of us making under a million dollars a year, their Small Biz program that increases our net percentage was very, very welcome. I also found 2020 included App Store reviews even faster than last year, as short as 30 minutes in some cases.”

Marco Arment said, “Apple seemed to dramatically ramp up enforcement on their draconian in-app-purchase rules this year, possibly to boost services revenue, and made unnecessarily offensive statements about developers in the press and legal filings. Later in the year, the reduction of the 30% cut to 15% for many small developers was unexpected but welcome relief, even though it was probably only done to politically defend against mounting pressure from large developers, regulators, and lawsuits.”

Casey Liss said, “Developer documentation is abhorrent. It is arguably the biggest thing preventing me from getting my job done effectively. Radar/Feedbacks are still a black hole. I am excitedly awaiting the day that Apple stops making apologies for how user- and developer-hostile providing bug reports is, and starts to properly fix it. Perhaps part of the reason software quality is so low is that Apple implicitly encourages developers not to provide bug reports! On the plus side, the Small Business Program is a welcome change. In a very Apple way, it is filled with rules, gotchas, and exceptions; however, it’s still a vast improvement.”

Steven Troughton-Smith said, “This is a tough one, because Apple has faced some huge controversies this year but also enacted some meaningful change to developer relations and the App Store, including the move to a lower rate for indie developers. Overall, I think the controversies are essential because they force Apple to self-reflect a little, and think more about how they want the next decade of the App Store to play out rather than maintaining the status quo, which is becoming more and more untenable with the increasing scrutiny it faces across the world, and the mounting responsibility Apple has as one of the dominant software platforms in the world.”

Brian Mattucci said, “They put some effort into improving the situation in 2020 with the ability to challenge app store guidelines, and dropping App Store fees to 15%. I support Apple in the fight that Epic started, too. However, I disagree with Apple’s confusing stance on game streaming apps. Many of these services stream games you already own on Steam, which is a storefront app that Apple allows. I get it – they draw the line at being able to buy games through that third party store AND play them on Apple’s devices… unless you’re streaming locally from a game console or PC, which seems like an odd exception to make. In the end, these banned services will fall back on Safari-based solutions and we’re all left wondering what the point was.”

Environmental and social issues

Grade: B (average score: 3.7, median score 4, last year: C+)

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Apple gets a lot of commendations for being on the right side of privacy issues, for its commitment to reducing the environmental impact of its products, and for its support of green power. It also stepped up to help during the COVID crisis, which numerous panelists applauded. But then there’s its reliance on China, and questions about the repairability and replaceability of its products.

Dan Moren said, “It would have been nice to see the company take a more forceful stand against the practices of the last U.S. administration. Back in 2019, Apple signed on to that whole pledge to stop treating shareholder value as the be-all end-all, but honestly, I don’t think it’s changed a thing. It was nice to see the company add its first woman of color to its board in January, but why did it take so long? Apple talks a good game, but its progress in actions feels sluggish.”

Devindra Hardawar said, “It’s hard to praise any tech company when it comes to social impact these days, but I appreciate Apple is still holding strong when it comes to consumer privacy.”

Casey Liss said, “I will never understand Apple’s petulant insistence on keeping their employees local to Cupertino. Perhaps this is the east-coaster in me shining through, but it seems to me that — this year more than any other — Apple needs to get on board with employees living where they are most comfortable… and where regular humans can actually afford to live. Apple could set a hell of an example here, if they wanted to. Otherwise, it’s mostly business as usual. Apple ain’t perfect, but they’re a damn sight better than most companies.”

Adam Engst said, “Apple’s environmental efforts are impressive, to say the least, and the company acquitted itself extremely well during the pandemic.”

Steven Aquino said, “Apple had a huge year in terms of disability representation with ‘See’ and ‘Little Voice.’ Apple took its heretofore product-centric commitment to accessibility to new heights with its streaming video service. Apple continues to plug away on serving the disability community pretty fantastically. From Back Tap to People Detection and more, Apple is finding new and clever ways to harness their legendary integration of hardware and software to create meaningful solutions for those who need them.”

Gabe Weatherhead said, “The world is complicated but Apple doesn’t seem to be living up to their own rhetoric. Apple’s reliance on China for both market and manufacturing means they continue to be influenced by dictatorships. Their need to control their hardware also had them on the wrong side of right-to-repair debates. I’d like to see Apple expand their role as consumer champion beyond just our right to security and privacy. More than almost any other consumer electronic company, Apple has an opportunity to make the world better. I’d like to see that in their marketing and in their impact.”

Paul Kafasis said, “Apple’s continued commitments to accessibility and education have been tremendously beneficial. However, there’s always room for improvement. Of particular note, Apple’s dealings with China are often troublesome. It does seem Apple may be striving to reduce their dependency on China (with more manufacturing taking place in other countries), and that would be a positive.”

Marco Arment said, “Apple continues to make advances in responsible manufacturing and energy, but their devices still aren’t more serviceable so as to extend their lifetimes. Apple’s reliance on China and their uncomfortable degree of cooperation with the Chinese government continue to be problematic and risky.”

Steven Troughton-Smith said, “Photos of hospital rooms filled with iPads solemnly waiting to perform their duty in enabling the families of the terminally ill to say their final goodbyes. iPhone-powered contact tracing a key part of health systems around the world. FaceTime Thanksgivings and Christmases as families and loved ones are forced to stay apart. Apple’s dramatic rate reduction for its ecosystem of small business owners and independent developers for the first time in over a decade. It’ll take a long time to truly process everything that has happened this year, but there is no doubt that this was a year for ‘Apple’ the brand to fade into the background while the world quietly relied on its hardware, software and services to try and get through their lives.”

Stephen Hackett said, “Apple’s work to fight COVID is admirable, as are its various environmental iniatives.”

Dave Hamilton said, “In The West Wing, Season 1, Episode 9, Aaron Sorkin (via Rob Lowe’s character, Sam Seaborn) talks about how ‘the next two decades are going to be privacy. I’m talking about the internet, I’m talking about cell phones, I’m talking about health records and who’s gay and who’s not. […] What could be more fundamental than this?’ That episode was released on November 24, 1999, over 21 years ago. I have to wonder if Apple influenced Sorkin or if Sorkin influenced Apple. Because for the past twenty years, Apple has definitely maintained this focus as part of their core. Thank goodness for that. Keep it up, Apple.”

Charles Arthur said, “Chargers! Who’d have thought they could make it about chargers? Leaving the charger out of the iPhone box of course got people who have a charger stuck in every plug in their home and car complaining ‘where’s muh CHARGER!!’ but environmental victories are won in small, broad steps. That step means millions of chargers won’t get made, won’t go to landfill or pollute the seas. The only other element of societal impact would be around having Google as the default search engine. If we think monopolies, even de facto ones, are bad, then isn’t it bad to take their money too? If Apple thinks Google tracks people too much, shouldn’t it be picking someone else to be the default search engine on macOS and iOS?”

Christina Warren said, “I’m still really bothered by the double-speak on China. It’s an unenviable position, but every report of suppliers who use slave labor, of policy changes to what programs are allowed in the store stand in stark contrast to the public commitment to human rights. And although I’m thrilled Apple is being more green, I think that selling decisions to omit chargers in $1500 phones or charging pads as being about the environment, when it is clear that higher margins/accessory attach percent are at least part of the calculus, makes me side-eye all the genuinely impressive green tech work that has happened.”

Brent Simmons said, “Apple’s continuing commitments to accessibility and to privacy should be a model for the industry. I love Apple for this.”

Jean MacDonald said, “The 2020 remote Apple presentations have given the company a chance to feature a greater diversity of employees that might not have made it to the stage in earlier years. We’ll have to wait until there is an in-person event to gauge whether the community of third-party developers reflects any noticeable progress.”

James Thomson said, “Apple’s continued dependency on authoritarian regimes at home and abroad, seemed to curb their societal impact this year. Having said that, the exposure notification APIs with Google were a project with literally global life saving intentions. Generally they seem to be doing ok, and continued work in the privacy space has helped keep the number high.”

Benjamin Mayo said, “100% green by 2030 is a strong commitment. However, this score is pulled down by recent reports of Apple improperly handling / turning a blind eye to labor issues in its supply chain.”

Rich Mogull said, “Diversity is increasing, and Apple did a wonderful job managing the pandemics. Really a leader for corporations. But this category can never be a 5 until they admit their China problem. Especially as oppression in China continues to increase.”

John Moltz said, “The privacy features that Apple continues to roll out that drive companies like Facebook apoplectic are a societal good that I don’t think the company gets enough credit for. The company gets only a 3 here, though, for attempting to water down or slow down a bill that would enforce restrictions on goods from China made with forced labor.”

Nick Heer said, “Apple continues to invest in privacy and security features across its operating system and services lineup. It handled the pandemic extremely well as far as store closures, careful reopening, and treatment of its staff. China remains Apple’s biggest liability on two fronts: its supply chain, and services like the App Store and Apple TV Plus. Apple is also facing increased antitrust scrutiny around the world for the way it runs the App Store, the commissions it charges third-party developers, and the way it uses private APIs. I think Apple’s environmental record is a 4/5 and its social record is a 2/5 at best. I am not averaging those grades because I see liabilities with China and antitrust to be too significant.”

Joe Macirowski said, “It’s still mostly greenwashing until they’re done with proprietary ports and that includes when their Qi pucks and Type-C ports don’t negotiate with existing PD compliant higher wattage chargers. Prior to the pandemic Cupertino was spending weeks out of the year blanketed in the literal smoke of the most on the nose possible metaphor for the state, nation, and world’s refusal to be good stewards of the planet. How are they supposed to attract talent that just spent the last year being home for their newborns first everything, afternoon bike rides, and working sandwiched between sleeping cats and dogs on a couch with non-negotiable demands of being sandwiched between two nerds in headphones at a shared sit-stand desk breathing the artificial air of a glass palace with a 360-degree view of the year-round haze that has returned with the commuters.”

Harry McCracken said, “Apple continues to avoid getting mired in many of Big Tech’s controversies. Even if it’s possible to poke holes in some aspects of its privacy-first mantra, the company is still coming up with clever new privacy features, and its lack of reliance on advertising has allowed it to be blithely pro-consumer in some important areas.”

Josh Centers said, “No one can take Apple’s environmental stance seriously until they return to user-replaceable batteries. Lithium-ion batteries have a limited lifespan.”

Zac Hall said, “2020 has been the year of COVID-19. Apple navigated the societal challenges of this as good as anyone could expect. Tim Cook also took the position to support a peaceful transition of power between presidential administrations. That should be a given, but nothing is these days.”

John Siracusa said, “Apple continues to use its products as its primary means of doing good in the world: both what they are and how they’re made. That’s great, but there’s a limit to what you can do with expensive electronics and services. If Apple wants to do more, it will have to look outside the bounds of its product matrix and personnel and consider a more active role in national and global politics. No one said changing the world would be easy or safe.”

Carolina Milanesi said, “I am super excited with the arrival of Barbara Whye as the new DEI leader. Apple has lacked leadership in this area for quite some time now aside from Lisa P Jackson. The COVID relief efforts were good but Apple needs to step up its actions in CSR outside of sustainability and accessibility.”

Dan Provost said, “Removing the charger from the iPhone box seems to have halted climate change, so my rating should probably be higher.”

Notes

I didn’t vote in the survey. Thanks to all of those who who participated in the survey: Shahid Kamal Ahmad, Steven Aquino, Marco Arment, Charles Arthur, Jeff Carlson, Robert Carter, Josh Centers, Alex Cox, Jessica Dennis, Dr. Drang, Michael E. Cohen, Adam Engst, Glenn Fleishman, Lex Friedman, Rob Griffiths, John Gruber, Stephen Hackett, Zac Hall, Dave Hamilton, Devindra Hardawar, Nick Heer, Myke Hurley, Paul Kafasis, Joe Kissell, Andrew Laurence, Casey Liss, Roman Loyola, Jean MacDonald, Joe Macirowski, Brian Mattucci, Benjamin Mayo, Harry McCracken, Kirk McElhearn, Carolina Milanesi, Rich Mogull, John Moltz, Dan Moren, Rosemary Orchard, Dan Provost, Gui Rambo, Rene Ritchie, Steve Sheridan, Allison Sheridan, Brent Simmons, Aleen Simms, John Siracusa, David Sparks, Brett Terpstra, James Thomson, Steven Troughton-Smith, Khoi Vinh, Christina Warren, and Gabe Weatherhead.

Previous surveys were reported for 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019.

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