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What I Learned This Week About Tim Cook’s Apple

Nearly four years after Steve Jobs’ death, the company is still unique, if imperfect.

The Verge

This is the debut installment of a new weekly commentary and reviews column on The Verge, also available on Re/code, by veteran tech journalist Walt Mossberg, now an executive editor at The Verge and editor at large of Re/code.

No winning streak goes on forever. But it would be hard to tell that from this week’s announcements from Apple. Even though the latest iteration of the company’s main product, the iPhone, didn’t change much externally, its gigantic annual fall product intro event seemed jammed with new products, features and clever ideas.

From a gargantuan iPad to a new Apple TV, to the new iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, there was plenty of hardware. But, perhaps even more interesting, at least to me, were some small, clever software innovations that made navigating such devices easier.

This hardly means Apple is perfect. Its new Apple Music service is confusing; its cloud products stumble too often; its Apple Watch still has a lot to prove; and, in my opinion, the company needs to take a fresh, hard look at core apps like Mail and Calendar.

Apple remains the world’s most influential tech company.

But this week’s event convinced me that Apple remains the world’s most influential tech company — even as we approach next month’s fourth anniversary of the tragically early death of its genius leader, Steve Jobs.

Many people love Apple, others despise it. But, even without Jobs, it cannot be ignored. There simply is no other company that combines such a high-quality hardware line with such well-regarded software platforms. A faltering Samsung has the former, but not the latter. A strong and admirable Google has the latter, but not the former.

If you didn’t believe that before, this week’s event made it crystal clear, with once-bitter rivals like Microsoft and Adobe showing up onstage to boast about how well their products worked with new Apple hardware and software.

Neither I nor my fellow reviewers at The Verge have had a chance to truly put Apple’s new hardware and software through its paces; those reviews will be along in the coming weeks. But here are a few initial thoughts:

3D Touch is impressive.

  • Anyone who thought there was no more fundamental innovation to be wrung out of the smartphone is just wrong. The 10-finger multi-touch interface made mainstream by the iPhone eight years ago has now taken a leap forward with Apple’s 3D Touch. This lets you view content in apps without opening them, quickly perform common actions and generally manage your smartphone more smoothly by simply pressing a bit harder than usual on the screen. In brief use so far, I found this both highly useful and delightful — exactly the reactions Apple loves best. I expect to use it many times a day.
  • Apple has upped its direct competition with the phone carriers by starting its own version of their new unsubsidized, hardware installment payment plans. The decline of subsidies threatened to emphasize Apple’s (and Samsung’s) high prices. Instead, Apple countered by launching its own installment plan, which includes a warranty. It not only makes the iPhone seem more affordable and encourages annual upgrades, it’s a weapon against carrier power, since the phones it will sell are unlocked, allowing people to switch networks at will.
  • Siri has quietly gotten vastly better.

  • Voice control can do more than ever. Siri, Apple’s voice-controlled intelligent assistant, now can control your TV. Once the butt of jokes because it erred too often, Siri has quietly gotten vastly better and, with the new Apple TV, it shows astounding versatility. Other set-top boxes, including those from Roku, Amazon and Comcast, already use voice to find shows and actors. But Siri in the new Apple TV can instantly answer questions like, “Who directed this movie”? And if you ask, “What did he just say?” it will rewind 15 seconds so you can hear the missed line again. Siri on Apple TV worked as promised for me almost every time even in a noisy demo area.
  • The war for the living room is on. Rumors about Apple revolutionizing TV are long in the tooth, but the new set-top box is like an opening gun for the company’s real ambition — providing its own TV service to compete with cable. I have no idea what this will look like, but, by introducing a powerful, fast box open to outside developers, the company has launched a campaign to turn TV and movie delivery into a series of apps that can help it keep people on Planet Apple. By turning the modest Apple TV into a potent, sexy hardware and software platform loaded with apps and games, the company might even be able to increase its leverage with media companies that have been resisting its ideas about content distribution.
  • Apple is willing to copy Microsoft to rescue the iPad. Its new iPad Pro tablet, like Microsoft’s Surface, has a magnetically connected snap-on keyboard and a stylus. Steven Sinofsky, the former Microsoft executive who helped create the Surface, tweeted: “iPad Pro has a magnetic fold-out keyboard … What an awesome idea!!” (But Apple hasn’t loaded it down with two user interfaces and a PC operating system, like its rival did.) This new tablet is a crucial part of the Cook-inspired plan to save the flagging iPad by driving it deeper into the Fortune 500 with a new form factor, productivity add-ons and distribution deals with IBM and Cisco.

The flow of ideas from Apple is still strong.

I have no idea how well these latest products will sell. And I care nothing at all for what Wall Street thinks of them. But I think they show that the flow of ideas from Apple is still strong.

Even in years when Apple isn’t taking the really big swings, like an entirely new product category or service, its control over the levers of both hardware and software allow it to iterate in more meaningful and important ways than anyone else.

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