As 2009 comes to a close, iLounge has marked its eighth year of operation, and I’ve marked my sixth year as its editor—a job that I have enjoyed more than any other, having worked inside and outside of the publishing world for nearly twenty years. None of those years has been quite like this one. Slow, cautious, sad, and yet hopeful, such an unusual year calls for a different sort of reflection than the formulaic chronological recitations of events that have become traditional and predictable in the past; no one wants to relive the many months of broad layoffs, cancelled products, and depressing political conflicts again in an editorial. But I’d be doing you, and myself, a disservice if I entirely ignored the clouds that were cast on 2009 by such events. Consider them mentioned, and now, left in the past.
My hope in writing this editorial today is to inspire you to think, as we do, about not just where we are right now and how we came to be here, but also about where we want to be going forward. Yes, this is a time of comparatively tepid, restrained emotions about the iPod and iPhone families. But we know from years of experience that this needn’t be the case, and every piece of evidence suggests that 2010 will be a much better, and more exciting year. With that, we begin our brief look back, and hope that you’ll join us in the comments below by telling us what you’re looking forward to in the year to come.
The Big Picture. It was obvious back in January that 2009 would be a slow year. The global economy was a mess, Apple had walked away from its only major remaining trade show, and third-party accessory developers were almost universally in a funk. Companies that had specialized in making electronic iPod plug-ins had hit engineering, innovation, and pricing walls; new product releases slowed, developers walked away or shut down, and excitement over new hardware dropped. A lot. There was cautious optimism within the industry that a rebound would take place in the middle of the year and continue through the holidays, but it got off to a late start, and Apple itself was the biggest beneficiary. Sales of the company’s products hit record and near-record levels at times when dollar menus and cheap laptops were widely believed to be the golden tickets to success.
The iPod. Up until Apple’s September It’s Only Rock and Roll event, the iPod was having a slow year—so slow that the company openly acknowledged the decline of traditional iPod models in favor of iPhone and iPod touch devices, and publicly said that it expected that trend to continue. But it didn’t stop releasing new models. After what was whispered to be a last-minute production delay in late 2008, Apple launched the third-generation iPod shuffle in March to a less than positive reception, holding back its most significantly improved model—the widely anticipated, camera-equipped fifth-generation iPod nano—for a release closer to the holidays. Another production delay reportedly forced the company to hold off on adding a camera to the third-generation iPod touch, leading to a 2009 lineup that consisted of the so-so shuffle, the strong nano, a barely improved classic, and a faster and higher-capacity but otherwise unchanged touch. Aggregate iPod sales continued to outpace all rivals by a wide margin, but started to fall modestly short of quarterly 2008 levels.
The iPhone. Blame Apple’s need to coordinate its plans with dozens of wireless phone partners, but rather than seeing unexpected capacity bumps, price changes, or new model introductions—all hallmarks of the iPod family before 2008—the iPhone officially settled into a June-July update cycle: it’s now expected that a new iPhone OS will receive its first public airing in March, then release alongside new iPhone hardware in late June or early July. Thus, in 2009, iPhone OS 3.0 and the iPhone 3GS followed up the previous year’s iPhone OS 2.0 and iPhone 3G, all decidedly iterative but important releases that improved the power and quality of the iPhone family, adding long-requested features and ones that weren’t expected, but were still welcome.
Most notable about the iPhone in 2009 was its continued international expansion and widening footprint in every territory it entered: from major U.S. cities to Europe and Asia, the iPhone started to take the iPod’s place as the media player of choice, displacing competing wireless phones from users’ pockets at the same time. Complaints about iPhone call quality—specifically, its ability to maintain calls on certain wireless networks, most notably AT&T’s—grew markedly as the number of users expanded, but appeared to be related to carrier capacity constraints rather than the iPhone hardware itself.
The Apps. Though our readers and editors selected them for Best of the Year awards, the iPhone 3GS and iPhone OS 3.0 weren’t the persistent story of 2009: rather, the focus was on the apps that ran on iPhones and iPod touches alike. Their icons came to fill monitors at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference and Cupertino headquarters, window displays at Apple Stores, and page after scrolling page of the company’s devices. “There’s an App for that” became an instant catchphrase—brilliantly mocked by Verizon in response to AT&T service problems—as users began to appreciate just how powerful their phones and media players could actually be when Apple wasn’t the only company releasing compatible software. Moreover, despite efforts from companies such as Electronic Arts to drive prices up, most developers remained aggressive in the pursuit of wider popularity, and some titles claimed installed user bases in the tens of millions. The question we once considered easy to answer—would a smaller touchscreen iPod or iPhone without apps or data services still be popular—has become cloudier because of the App Store.
Lurking at all times in the background, however, were concerns regarding the approval of applications: developers, including excellent ones—even the 2009 Developer of the Year—walked away from the App Store after human and computerized tools rejected their apps or updates on capricious, ridiculous, or spurious grounds, often while approving similar or worse apps for release. Apple refused to openly discuss the issues with developers at its Worldwide Developer Conference, and continued to employ the screwy approval and rejection processes for months thereafter, resulting in needless, long delays and unnecessary battles. Small-scale apologies and outreach started too late, and to date have not reversed the App Store’s perception as a cluttered minefield where great apps struggle to stand out—or even to get released—amongst piles of easily approved junk.
Apple TV. Apple’s living room experiment stagnated in 2009, with no new hardware updates, a late, all-but-mandatory software update, and a price drop on the 160GB model serving as the most notable events—and non-events—of the year. Third-party accessories ceased to be released for Apple TV, and Apple refused to open the device to third-party software development despite signs of interest from certain quarters. Those who still cared about the device waited anxiously for the other shoe to drop this year, but it never did.
iLounge, or, Meta. Reviews, tutorials, and reader discussions continued to appear at a brisk pace in 2009, shifting somewhat in focus to accommodate the growth of apps and changes in iTunes. What changed more significantly was the nature and frequency of genuinely worthwhile news in 2009—a year that saw Apple concentrate all but one of its iPod releases on that single event in September, and the vast majority of its important iPhone news in June. The company’s monthly press releases contained more financial, legal, and personnel developments during the year than new iPod, iPhone, and iTunes product announcements, and third-party developers worked with only some success to fill the news gap. Behind the scenes, iLounge’s editors had more conversations about what shouldn’t be posted as “news” than ever before in our history. We passed on endless analyst reports filled with guesstimate-quality speculation. Rumors about the health of a certain very important Apple executive. Untold numbers of trivial and/or tasteless apps. Surveys that purported to show the iPhone tanking or surging in various countries based on uselessly small sample responses. And so on.
What became obvious in the process was that there are now two competing philosophies in covering technology news: one is to report everything, no matter how trivial, inaccurate, or downright stupid, and let the good stuff sort itself out from the bad. Every rumor, every falsehood, every “who cares” story appears alongside every serious, honest, and/or important one, with snarky little “take it with a grain of salt” references peppering basically everything. We’ve heard this philosophy described as “post first, ask questions later,” and there’s no denying that it has its virtues. Posting these stories, along with their mandatory subsequent corrections, retractions, and revisions, would fill up our news section and RSS feed, generate discussions, and probably please some people.
But we’re not going to do that. We favor the other philosophy, which requires editors to actually exercise editorial judgment, spotlighting that which deserves a spotlight rather than giving everything—including kooks, fakes, and sleaze—the same platform. Our editors have spent years sifting through the filler so you don’t have to. We’ve decided that we’d rather skip posting junk and lose some traffic than post it and waste your time.
What the lull in 2009 taught us, more than anything, is the value of Apple’s philosophy that saying no sometimes—at the right times—is more important than saying yes to everything. It leads to better products, sometimes a dull today in favor of a smarter tomorrow, and hopefully something that will inspire people to do better and dream higher. We’re glad to put this slow and sometimes depressing year behind us. But we have every reason to be optimistic that 2010—the year of the Apple tablet, a true next-generation iPhone, and exciting new iPods, software, and accessories—will be one of the best in history. It’s going to start with an amazing new stage at CES in Las Vegas, and quickly ramp up thereafter.
What are your thoughts on this year, and the year that’s to come? Share your thoughts and comments below.