Until this year, it was hard to imagine 12 months going by without Apple producing something worth lusting after. This was a long, and relatively unbroken, tradition dating back to the first iPod in 2001 and continuing straight through the debuts of the iPhone in 2007 and the iPad in 2010. Apple also jumpstarted categories where innovation had stalled, changing the direction of laptop design with its ultralight, razor-thin Macbook Air. Whether you had the means to pick up one of these treasures, or just stared at them through Apple Store windows, Cupertino seemed to have struck a Faustian deal to consistently pump out gadgets that we coveted by everyone, except maybe the most embittered PC partisans.
This year, Apple's winning streak ended. The company offered relatively minor updates of existing product lines, including a new generation of iPhone 7 that sacrificed a pre-existing feature — the phone lost its standard headphone jack — but offered no real benefit in return. The Apple Watch Series 2 has some impressive fitness-based upgrades, and yet sales of the smartwatch have plummeted compared to 2015, while fitness tracker sales continue to climb, suggesting that many customers are rejecting the idea of a pricey wrist computer in favor of simpler, cheaper wearables. The latest 10-inch iPad is an all-around fancier device, but lacks any jaw-dropping innovation. And the new Macbook Pro offers little to justify its stunning pricetag aside from The Touch Strip, a multi-touch glass that runs across the top of the keyboard.
But if Apple had a ho-hum 2016, here's the worse news for consumer tech: so did just about everyone else.
It's not that 2016 was a bad year for Apple. The MacBook Pro is selling well, and iPhone 7's are still iPhones, meaning they're on track to become the single most popular model of smartphone on the planet. But it was an underwhelming year for Apple in that none of its products were a big deal. If those new releases entered the national conversation at all, it was on the surly end of the spectrum, with the death of headphone jacks and USB ports reigniting old, often unfair criticisms that Apple regularly bullies its own customers into buying new hardware.
But if Apple had a ho-hum 2016, here's the worse news for consumer tech: so did just about everyone else. Samsung's Galaxy Note 7 phone wasn't exactly lighting up the blogosphere, at least until an alarming number of units started bursting into flames. Microsoft released a blitz of commercials touting the new generation of its Surface Pro 4, but none of its features are notably better or different than the models that came before. Oculus won't say how many of its Rift virtual reality headsets have sold, capping off years of hype with yet another sad-trombone note for the VR revolution that stubbornly refuses to show up. Though 4K-resolution TVs came down in price, 4K content is still insanely hard to find. Even video game console-makers punted the ball, promising new generations in 2017, while offering moderately upgraded versions to anyone unwise enough to join the last gasps of this waning console war. To poorly paraphrase R.E.M., when it came to this past year's hardware, nothing was up the industry's sleeve, and nothing was cool.
Maybe 2017 will prove us wrong, and a slew of iconic gadgets will make everyone shut up about the latest Twitter war or Snapchat filter or robotic car, and make consumer electronics as relevant as ever.
It's possible that this wasn't just a down year for exciting gear, but the beginning of the end of noteworthy hardware. After all, Apple's winning streak started with the revelation that the coolest hardware was just a conduit for even cooler code. That was the iPod, a device that deserves its place in the Museum of Modern Art's celebration of industrial design, but whose popularity had more to do with mainstreaming digital music, and introducing the world to the idea that you could safely, and legally download entertainment over the internet. The iPhone upended mobile phones by surrendering the handset's hardware to software, replacing buttons with graphics and making data plans more relevant than calling plans. Whether Apple started this trend or got in early enough to seem like they did, Cupertino played a role in the gradual, and inevitable decline of hardware innovation.
The supremacy of data over hardware seems to be hitting other industries, too. Five years ago journalists were comparing the dueling design strategies of the Chevrolet Volt's mix of electric drive for short trips and fuel-burn for longer rides with Nissan and Tesla's battery-only cars. Today, it's the breakthroughs in code, not drivetrain, that have the world's attention, as the promise of autonomous vehicles appears increasingly viable. The only new aircraft that are interesting are drones, because of the software that runs them, rather than the rotors that keep them in the air.
It's no real surprise software innovation is outpacing hardware. Physical technology is shackled by the harsher laws of physics, while code swans through the world, constrained only by imagination (and the number of electrons that are available, and how fast they can race between locations). Maybe 2017 will prove us wrong, and a slew of iconic gadgets will make everyone shut up about the latest Twitter war or Snapchat filter or robotic car, and make consumer electronics as relevant as ever.
But all hope for hardware isn't lost just yet. There was one new class of product in 2016 that felt fresh and innovative, because of the way it harnessed data. They're called smart speakers, and they're a blast. Though Amazon created the category of voice-controlled, internet-connected speakers in 2015 with the Echo, it wasn't until last year that it secured enough partners and algorithm smarts to pull off its coolest tricks. If Echo can hear your voice, it can call you an Uber, or turn down the Wifi-connected lights or thermostat, play music from your Spotify account, or draw from the internet to answer questions. Unfortunately, Echo is a bit of a dunce in that last regard, punting on a surprising number of requests. That's why the newer Google Home feels more like the fully-realized example of this category. It supplies answers more often and delivers on the long-delayed promise of voice computing, by letting anyone within yelling distance of the device use it to set timers, dim smart lights, or try to stump its fancy algorithms. Like many game-changing gadgets, Google Home has parlors tricks and game-changing functionality in equal parts. It's a standout, in part because this year it stands alone.