When you've been writing about tech for some time, you always have to be prepared to answer one inevitable question from friends and family, especially around this time of year: "So, which phone/tablet/computer should I buy?"
For years, my answer has been pretty reliable: If you have the money, just get whatever Apple makes. My reasoning was pretty simple. When people seek out advice about tech, all they want is to feel comfortable with their purchase. And it used to be that customers could count on Apple products to do exactly what they wanted them to do.
But this year, it feels as if Apple has lost its sheen.
In part, this feeling stemmed from the surprising software bugs and failures that have plagued Apple products this year. iOS 11, the software that runs iPhones and iPads, was rife with glitches and inconsistencies when it was released in September this year. There were reports of drops in battery life, screen orientation bugs, and plenty of crashes. This was all distinctly un-Apple-like: That kind of wide-ranging set of problems simply never used to occur with Apple products. It was frustrating and discomfiting because that now well-worn mantra — it just works — no longer seemed to apply. At one point, I couldn't even get the speakerphone on my iPhone to function.
People also used to turn to Apple stuff because it was more secure. But late this year, it was revealed that anyone could log in to a new Mac simply by clicking on login a few times at startup. This sort of glaring oversight would be hard to forgive in a startup, let alone the world's biggest tech company.
Even the choices Apple has made with regards to hardware have made its products harder to unequivocally recommend. Most obvious is the Mac lineup. As The Outline's Casey Johnston has written, the new butterfly style keyboard is prone to being rendered useless by tiny fragments of dust or food — leading to extremely costly repairs. This is to say nothing of the fact that the new keyboard is no longer the industry standard it once was, instead becoming a love-it-or-hate-it trait of the latest models.
Of course, Apple's bread and butter is now the iPhone, and the iPhone X is by all accounts an outstanding device. But as popular YouTube tech reviewer Linus Sebastian argued, the new phone's FaceID system, which replaces the fingerprint reader with a facial recognition system, feels like the first generation of what will eventually be a good idea. It belies a frustrating trend at Apple in which flashy features or design seem to get prioritized over simple practicality.
The confluence of function and form was once Apple's key selling point. The iPad, iPhone, or Mac didn't just look good, they worked well, too. It was that mix of qualities that made them easy to recommend, and easy to buy. Faced with an array of products — obscure smartphones, or laptops with baffling model names or numbers — consumers who could spare the money found relief in Apple. Yes, the products cost a bit more, but at least you knew you were getting something great for your money.
Now, Apple's competitors are trying to replicate that same ethos. That's at least part of Microsoft's reasoning behind its Surface line, especially its Surface Laptop, which many reviewers said was the laptop Apple should have made. Whereas the Macbook Air was once the go-to device for students, journalists, and writers, its age and the lack of a clear replacement from Apple have made it less desirable.
While there are still some categories in which Apple has no real competition in terms of quality — tablets and smartwatches, for example — that can no longer be said for laptops, desktops, or the all-important smartphone category. And it is in these areas that we see a lack of focus from Apple.
This is not to say the company is in decline; it still has hundreds of millions of fans and very popular products, not to mention hundreds of billions of dollars in reserve. Apple is in a position to enter and take over entire sectors in a way few organizations in history have been.
But it does seem like Apple slipped slightly from its perch this year. Rather than being the best, it's a company with some good products, some bad ones, and a reputation for being mostly good, but not perfect.
Case in point: Apple's HomePod speaker saw its late-2017 release date pushed back to early next year. When it does debut, it will lack many of the more advanced features available on competing smart speakers from Amazon and Google.
This seems symbolic. While in the past, Apple might have arrived late to the market, it would always release something clearly superior. It happened with the iPhone, it happened with the iPad, and it happened with the Apple Watch. But the HomePod is just one more entry into a market already dominated by rivals, and with no particularly compelling features or characteristics. It's a fitting reminder that where once Apple was singular, it now finds itself competing in a crowded field. This year, Apple's slip-ups have made giving an answer to that inevitable question — "What product should I buy?" — that much more complicated.