Minority Report: Looking back at 12 months of Apple

An absent leader, an absent product, iPhone highs and legal woes

An absent leader, an absent product, iPhone highs and legal woes

The closely-watched Apple never fails to deliver an eventful year. Seb Janacek looks back at the highs and lows of the past 12 months for the Cupertino company - and looks forward at what's to come in 2010.

The last 12 months have represented anything but a traditional year for Apple, with most of the focus being on an absent leader (Steve Jobs) and an absent product (the Mac tablet).

Traditionally, the Mac calendar year begins with the Steve Jobs keynote at the Macworld Expo, where the post-Christmas Apple goodies steal the spotlight from the rest of the tech industry, congregated at the CES trade show.

Not this year. Or indeed any other year hence.

The 2009 January address to the faithful was the company's last appearance at the event. And, adding insult to injury, Steve Jobs did not give the final keynote: speech duties were handed over instead to Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller. More interesting times lay ahead.

Jobs' health woes
The year began with Jobs announcing that he had been suffering from a "hormone imbalance" for a number of months.

In an email to company employees on 14 January, Jobs announced he was taking a six-month leave of absence to recuperate.

The Apple CEO shared his frustrations that the obsession with his health has proved a serious "distraction" for his immediate family and his extended family at the company.

He added that his health issues were "more complex" than originally thought and, in order to allow himself to recover and to allow the company to focus on product delivery, he would be out of action until June.

Rumours over who would succeed Jobs were put to rest with the news that Apple COO Tim Cook would take on Jobs' day-to-day responsibilities.

A few days later the company reported stellar revenues and profits. Despite talk that the recession and Apple's premium hardware prices would mean tough times for the company, it proved critics wrong. It was to be a trick it would repeat in subsequent quarters throughout the rest of the year.

The Phantom Mac
With the company figurehead on leave, Apple watchers became fixated on a phantom product. A product which Apple has never confirmed the existence of, yet which has become one of the most talked about products in its recent history. A mythical device that has been predicted since the demise of the Newton.

The fascination with the so-called Mac tablet reached fever pitch in 2009. Artists' impressions of the device flooded the web with vigour.

Analysts poked through inventory orders from the Far East like Roman soothsayers poking through bird entrails, divining for clues as to when the messianic product would be released.

The form factor leapt from six inches to 11 inches. One day it had this kind of solid state hard drive, the next week it contained a 3G chip and was subsidised by mobile carriers.

It's true there's been a certain level of uncertainty as to what it will look like. The only certainty has been that the tablet is absolutely, definitely a real product.

Probably...

Product highs and lows
While Jobs' health and tablet rumours defined 2009, one cannot round-up Apple's year without mentioning the product highlights from all sides of the company's business.

In 2009 iPhone sales grew and the smartphone saw further diversification in its international markets and carrier partners.

The iPhone 3GS, a souped-up version of the 3G, with built-in compass, video recording capability and a faster processor, launched - and sold by the truckload.

Meanwhile, Apple finally launched the iPhone in China. By default, and at the behest of the Chinese government, the wi-fi had been disabled, rendering the iPhone merely 'a Phone'.

Then there was the news that App Store reached a remarkable landmark - more than one billion downloads by April, and two billion by September.

On the software side, Snow Leopard, or Mac OS X 10.6, stole the stage in August when it was released for a knockdown price. The OS update was a refined and honed version of the previous iteration, with only a handful of new features but hundreds of under-the-hood refinements.

The Mac OS had an easy run against the floundering Windows Vista but it was preparing itself for the sterner test that lay ahead in the form of Windows 7.

On the music side, the autumn saw the release of iPods with video cameras and FM radios and the frankly awful iTunes 9 - more exciting years have been seen for this side of the business.

On the hardware side, new iMacs and a new mouse appeared in October. The Magic Mouse incorporated the touchscreen of the iPhone with the frustrating usability quibbles and questionable ergonomics that have inexplicably haunted all Apple mice.

The return of Jobs
By September, Steve Jobs returned as the public face of the company.

The CEO was a surprise speaker at Apple's now traditional September music event.

He told the crowd: "As some of you may know, about five months ago I had a liver transplant - so I now have the liver of a mid-20s person who died in a car crash and was generous enough to donate their organs - I wouldn't be here without such generosity. So I hope all of us can be as generous and elect to become organ donors."

He thanked the Apple executive team adding: "So I'm vertical, I'm back at Apple and I'm loving every day of it."

Investors slept soundly in their beds once more. The Steve was back at Apple - just in time to celebrate being named silicon.com's number one Agenda Setter.

Legal battles
In 2009 Apple was involved in a couple of legal disputes which both came to a head in December.

In this month Apple countersued Nokia over smartphone patents in what will likely prove to be a long-running and symbolic battle between old and new phone giants.

Then, on 15 December, came an early Christmas present for the Cupertino company: the decision to wrap up operations of Psystar, the Mac clone maker that had irked Apple for two years.

Apple had alleged that the little company was merely a stalking horse for a consortium of individuals and organisations. Whether that will ever be proven is doubtful. What is certain is that Apple got the precedent it was seeking.

If you want to buy a computer with Mac OS X pre-installed, it has to be a Mac.

What does 2010 hold?
Looking ahead, it's hard to get away from the tablet. Expect the phantom device to dominate headlines again in 2010 - an extraordinary reality for a product that may be non-existent.

When you consider that the latest gossip was that the rumoured device's launch has "slipped" to the second quarter of 2010 from January, you have to worry that perhaps the analysts are chasing a ghost of a machine.

The most intriguing part of the rumour is that Apple is talking with big print publishers about whether Apple can do for the publishing industry what it did for music.

Amazon's Kindle and other players from manufacturers such as as Sony are making inroads into the e-reader market and it may be a market ripe for domination by Cupertino. Whether e-readers will hold the same mass consumer appeal as music players is another matter altogether.

Expect the iPhone to continue its stellar rise, the iPod to slowly diminish but still sell millions and the Mac to benefit from sales of both.

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