Apple's 5 Biggest Moments in 2008

From the iPhone 3G to 'unibody' MacBooks, 2008 was a standout year for Apple.

Apple was a busy company in 2008. Over the past twelve months, the number of Apple-branded products on the street has become so broad and ubiquitous that it's hard to go a day without seeing evidence of it, even if you're not a Mac, iPhone or iPod owner.

And while it doesn't appear that Apple plans to slow down any in 2009—despite the seemingly endless supply of rumors about the health of CEO Steve Jobs—it's worth reflecting on some of the most notable innovations from Apple in a year that easily ranks as one of the most significant in its 31-year-history.

At last, the iPhone 3G

Without a doubt, the iPhone 3G was the biggest Apple product release in years—if not the biggest in the company's history. Although the original iPhone had been on the market for a year, the launch of the iPhone 3G in July offered more than a simple upgrade to the handset.

In addition to new features like 3G network support and GPS capabilities, the iPhone 3G launch also bundled in a major update to the iPhone's operating system. Thousands of applications from independent developers soon followed, turning the iPhone from a way-cool phone/PDA into a device that offered an amazing breadth of features.

In particular, it seemed as if the iPhone 3G was aimed squarely at business and enterprise environments—even if Apple did little to advance that case. The iPhone 2.0 software update, for the first time, allowed businesses to enable push notification of e-mails, contacts and calendar items with a Microsoft Exchange server. It also allowed Exchange security policies to be enforced and all data on a lost or stolen phone to be remotely wiped. And Apple included configuration profiles that let IT departments preconfigure settings, including security policies and digital certificates for secure network connectivity, on one or more iPhones before rolling them out to employees.

Without those changes, many IT managers would remain reluctant to even consider the iPhone for business use. With those features in place, Apple was able to begin building market share for the iPhone, both at home and at work.

Another key move: The iPhone 3G was launched in 22 countries on one day, marking its worldwide emergence before a much broader audience than the original iPhone. Unfortunately, the weight of all those global iPhone activations had a downside: Apple's iTunes Store servers couldn't handle the sustained load of activations, causing problems for first-day buyers. Even so, millions of iPhones were sold in a single day around the world, making the launch an unprecedented success.

Even as Apple has pushed the iPhone out into more countries, rivals have scrambled to keep up. They're still scrambling, and yes, I'm looking at you, BlackBerry Storm.

The iPhone SDK and App Store: Apps, apps, apps

An integral part of the iPhone 2.0 software announcement was the creation of an iPhone developer program. Designed by Apple, it empowered anyone who wanted to download the iPhone software development kit (SDK) to try his hand at creating his own iPhone application. This was a major advance for the iPhone that, like its new enterprise features, enabled it to compete with other mobile systems, most of which already supported third-party app development.

Building on the iPhone SDK, Apple came up with a smart solution for distributing and installing iPhone apps. Modeling the success of its iTunes Store, Apple created the App Store—a one-stop shopping location for all iPhone applications.

The App Store was revolutionary in several ways: It eliminated the need for advertising budgets, merchandising to physical stores and server hosting for application downloads, as well as the need to process customer transactions. Developers developed, Apple did the rest—and took a sizable cut of profits for its efforts. The result was a level playing field for all developers, from large companies to small one-person operations and even presidential campaigns. (Remember the Obama iPhone app?)

With all applications available in a single store, accessible from a computer or from an iPhone or an iPod Touch, users could easily track down applications in no time. Application installation via the App Store became the model of simplicity: Find an app, click "buy" and then wait a few seconds or minutes (depending on connection speeds) while the iPhone downloaded and installed the app without further ado.

The iPhone SDK and App Store weren't without faults. Developers could download the SDK for free, but they could only build applications installable on an iPhone after joining the iPhone Developer Program, paying $99 a year and signing restrictive nondisclosure agreements that stopped developers from even discussing their coding experiences with one another.

That was understandable before the iPhone 3G launch, but developers were annoyed that it took Apple months after the release to actually absolve them of the NDAs and allow open discussion about iPhone development.

The App Store also generated controversy when Apple rejected apps for reasons having less to do with code problems and more with the intended function of some applications. Certainly there were times developers had to fix their code—even if it wasn't always clear from Apple what needed to be changed. More controversial was Apple's decision to bounce apps for duplicating functions already offered on the iPhone or for being what Apple deemed inappropriate.

Still, the iPhone SDK and App Store could end up being the biggest Apple news of the year. More than 10,000 applications have been listed since the store went live with the launch of the iPhone 3G in July. Some developers have already made millions via their App Store offerings.

And the model has caught on with other smart phone makers: Google's Android, Palm, Microsoft and RIM now offer—or have announced—stores or software portals patterned after the App Store. The App Store concept may prove more revolutionary to the smart phone industry than the iPhone itself.

Building on the power of iTunes

2008 turned out to be a big year for Apple's iTunes, both as a media player and as a retail channel. In March, iTunes became the No. 1 music retailer in the world, ousting Wal-Mart from the top spot. That's big news for a couple of reasons. First, it demonstrates that the market for electronic music sales is much bigger than many music execs want to admit.

It also illustrates that to be successful, an electronic music store must be well balanced and dynamic, easy to use, integrated with music devices—in this case, the iPod and iPhone—that are an established part of the popular culture, and filled with as broad a catalog of music as possible. A store also has to navigate the competing needs of recording companies and users, as well as the laws of any country in which it operates.

The success of the iTunes Store shows that even if Apple hasn't concocted the perfect formula, it's the best of the various options offered so far.

ITunes—the application, not the store—gained a lot of new features over the course of 2008. First came the addition of movie rentals from the iTunes Store that could be played on iPods, iPhones and high-definition TVs via Apple's set-top box, the Apple TV. Then there was iTunes' integration with the App Store, allowing it to serve as a mechanism for buying, installing and managing iPhone/iPod Touch applications.

Finally, in September, iTunes got a major upgrade that included the Genius feature that allows users to build smarter playlists and find new music based on their current libraries. While similar offerings were available in other media tools, Apple went a step further by building the technology into its latest generation of iPods, the iPhone, the iPod Touch and the Apple TV. And with an eye on where media is going, rather than where it's been, Apple beefed up the support for hi-def content available from the iTunes Store.

You say unibody, I say MacBook

Apple has always pushed the envelope when it comes to laptop design, but this year the company took innovation to new heights. Apple began 2008 by introducing the MacBook Air—the smallest Mac laptop ever made—at the Macworld Expo. Although light on ports, hard drive space and processing power, the MacBook Air remains a beautiful machine and still offers one of the best laptop screens on the market—complete with stellar LED backlighting.

The Air also introduced touch-screen support for multitouch gestures to the Mac. Built on the same technology that allows iPhone and iPod Touch users to scroll, pinch and pivot on-screen objects by gesturing with more than one finger, the Air —and all MacBooks introduced since its arrival&mdahs;allows users to use gestures to manipulate objects on their screens in all kinds of ways in a variety of applications. The result is a successful re-imagining of the how a trackpad can be used as an input device.

Apple didn't stop with the MacBook Air. It also released MacBook Pro updates that incorporated some of the innovations introduced on the Air. But the biggest innovation in MacBook design came in October, when Apple released a new line of MacBooks. The "unibody" MacBooks are built using a unique manufacturing process that carves the entire notebook case from a single piece of aluminum, resulting in decreased weight and increased sturdiness.

The new MacBooks continued the pioneering of multitouch gestures and eschewed the standard trackpad button by using the trackpad's surface itself as a button, allowing for a larger touch-sensitive surface. And never being a company to shy away from new technologies, Apple introduced a new display connector for these laptops—the Mini DisplayPort.

A new big cat on the way

A week before Mac and iPhone developers convened for Apple's annual WorldWide Developers Conference (WWDC) in June, there was barely a hint that the company would announce a successor to its flagship operating system, Mac OS X 10.5, Leopard, which was launched in October 2007. Just before WWDC, there was only the rumor of a new Mac OS X version in the works. During the WWDC keynote, however, Apple announced Mac OS X 10.6, Snow Leopard, the next generation of Mac OS X; it's due out by mid-2009.

The announcement made few waves for most Mac users, and Apple said the new operating system will offer few new features. With Snow Leopard, Apple will focus on performance and code bloat—aiming to speed things up and reduce the amount of hard drive space the software required.

For developers, these under-the-hood changes (which include advanced support for systems with multi-core processors, OpenCL and the ability to use graphics processing hardware for general computing, and expanded 64-bit processing support) are a big deal. The result should be a leaner and significantly faster operating system.

Apple also appears to be aiming Snow Leopard at the enterprise world. Like the iPhone, Snow Leopard will feature support for Microsoft's ActiveSync protocol, enabling native integration from the bundled Mail, Address Book and iCal applications. Although some Exchange support has been available to Mac users through Apple's Mail and Microsoft's Entourage, it has been largely limited to date—and clumsy to set up.

The promise of Macs that interact with Exchange as seamlessly as Outlook on a Windows PC will be big news for many users and businesses, perhaps making Snow Leopard one of the most important Mac OS X releases to come out of Apple since the early days of OS X.

Overall, innovation ruled Apple in 2008

Looking back over the past year, the word that keeps coming to mind is innovation. Apple has always been an innovative company, but perhaps no more so than in 2008. Even as other companies pull back from exploring new ground because of the economic downturn, Apple continues to be a pioneering company on a variety of fronts. I won't speculate at this point about what's ahead for the company in 2009, but I expect that there will be at least one or two surprises.

And given that the 2009 Macworld Expo starts on Monday in San Francisco, we shouldn't have to wait long to see what Steve Jobs, er, Phil Schiller, pulls out of the Apple hat.

Ryan Faas is a frequent Computerworld contributor specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. Find more about him at RyanFaas.com.

This story, "Apple's 5 Biggest Moments in 2008" was originally published by Computerworld.

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