For Apple, the year 2016 may be best remembered as the year the headphone jack was stripped away from the iPhone, without any real apology, by one of the few organizations that has the power and gall to kill popular consumer tech standards and call it “courage.” It was a year of awkward product launches, and it seemed that every new gadget was also coupled with disappointment.
But 2016 was also the year that gadgets weren’t necessarily the most important thing at Apple. The company’s most critical moment actually had its roots in the end of 2015, and it’s something that may be of even more importance in 2017.
First: the products. Early this year, Apple rolled out a smaller 9.7-inch iPad Pro, and upgraded the internals of the iPhone 5 and called it the iPhone SE. The fact that Apple literally shrunk its existing products rather than completely reimagining them escaped no one, and the theme was carried on throughout the year: things were tweaked, lost ports, or gained some sensors, but ultimately most things looked the same. Apple Watch now has GPS. There’s a Touch Bar on the MacBook Pro. The wire-free AirPod headphones that were announced in September were delayed for weeks, though did end up on sale before the holidays.
One of the biggest changes to Apple’s product lineup had to do with its software, and it’s a change we haven’t been able to fully measure the impact of yet: in June Apple said it would change its revenue split with subscription-based app developers, and expanded the categories of apps that could charge people for subscription services. The move showed that the app economy had in fact matured, but was also made in reaction to complaints from developers that making apps doesn’t make them any money. iMessage finally caught up to the times, but Apple TV is still in a will-we-or-won’t-we-work-with-cable purgatory.
An obvious PR push in the final quarter of the year would probably be enough for the most hardened grader to grudgingly bestow a “B” upon the company, but Apple’s most important and critical product is one that doesn’t appear on launch stages or get many public updates: its emphasis on privacy and security.
Apple has almost always offered industry-standard encryption, but its commitment to additional layers of security and privacy, down to the physical chip inside iPhones, was seriously tested following the 2015 San Bernardino shooting. Despite immense pressure in the months that followed, Apple refused to create — in fact, said it couldn’t create — software for the government that would give it access to the passcode-protected iPhone. The FBI was eventually able to gain access through a tool provided by an undisclosed third-party. Apple, as far as we know, didn’t provide assistance with that tool.
Whether you think Apple’s steadfast refusal to create a backdoor for the government is admirable or atrocious probably depends on your feelings about national security. But it was also around this time that another voice emerged, that of now-President-elect Donald Trump. At the height of the Apple-FBI fracas Trump called for a boycott of the company’s products, establishing himself early on as an adversary to the world’s largest tech company.
Exactly how much access government agencies will have to consumers’ data during a Trump presidency is still unknown. In the past, Trump has said that the NSA should be given “as much leeway as possible” to the extent that the agency can do what it has to do without violating the Fourth Amendment; two of his top picks for leaders of law enforcement and intelligence agencies have argued that expanded surveillance is needed in the US.
The clashes between government and Silicon Valley, which holds the keys to our most personal bits of digital information, have only just begun. Apple, for now, hasn’t wavered. Which may just be as good as it gets in a year like 2016.