By Matt Birchler

My 2021 Report Card for Apple

Jason Snell does his excellent Apple report card every year, and while I wasn’t invited (Jason, call me 😊), the report card has been rattling around in my head since it came out and I wanted to add my takes, so consider this a write-in ballot.

As a reminder to those unfamiliar, the report card asks each person to give each category a score from 1-5 and explain their thinking.

Mac

Score: 5

Maybe your pet Mac didn't get updated this year, but when you look at the machines Apple released, as well as the ones that started selling in December of 2020, then I don't know how you'd ever give the Mac a 5 score here.

macOS Monterey was admittedly not the most exciting release ever, but it was more than solid, and while things like Shortcuts have a lot of improvements to be made, the Mac as a platform feels in a better place today than it has at any point in the past decade.

iPhone

Score: 4

Not a design update year, but the upgrades the iPhone did get were meaningful in ways that almost all iPhone users will value. The battery life is better across the board, making the mini actually usable and the Max absolutely ridiculous, and the camera upgrades were fantastic as well.

iPad

Score: 3

This may be a bit harsh, but the iPad was all over the place this year. The new mini is great, but the Pro feels like it's treading water. I'm not bothered by the same design (it's still awesome), and the M1 and Thunderbolt are a lot of power to add, but the software continues to disappoint by holding the whole thing back. Thunderbolt means great external display support and passthrough tech, but not on the iPad. The M1 means insane performance in Apple's pro apps, except on the iPad.

Wearables

Score: 4

A very strong year for Apple's wearables overall. The Apple Watch was good (more on that below), the 3rd gen AirPods are great, and the AirPods Max were so good that they absolutely warranted their $200 premium over their direct competitors in the market.

Apple Watch

Score: 4

I think the Apple Watch Series 7 is a good device. It's not world-changing, but the physical design changes are immediately noticeable and welcomed for people with older models. Apple may have a more substantial update in the works, but I personally think this is a great time to buy into an Apple Watch.

Apple TV

Score: 3

I don't understand the pricing of this device, and I think it continues to live in this weird middle-ground where it's too expensive to be an easy recommendation if people just want it for video, but it lacks the software to suggest anyone buy it as a gaming device. Yes, the remote is far better than before, and I prefer the UI to Roku and Amazon's offerings, but this is the main Apple operating system that just makes me go, "what are they doing here?"

Services

Score: 4

I use Apple services for a ton of stuff, and they all work pretty darn well. Certain things like Mail and Apple News don't do it for me, but I don't think it's reasonable to expect I'll use every single service from any company. I pay for Apple One Premium and get my money's worth here. It's not flashy, but most of their stuff works well for me, and that's what I'm looking for.

HomeKit/Home Automation

Score: 2

There's so much room for improvement here! The home app is decent, but is becoming unmanageable as more devices are added to my home, and it's still a bit of a pain shopping for smart devices as everything supports Alexa and Google Assistant, but you've got to filter out a lot of useful stuff if you want to use HomeKit.

I'd love to see Apple make more hardware as well. Big HomePods and routers would be a good place to start.

Hardware Reliability

Score: 5

I'm wracking my brain to think of something that wasn't good last year, and I'm coming up empty. There were the AirPods Pro that had a rattling issue, but that started before 2021 and Apple has taken care of that well for users, so I have no complaints.

Software Quality

Score: 4

I'm sure others will score this lower, but the issues with software just haven't impacted me too much, so it's hard for me to knock it too much. In general, Apple's software releases have been good for me and my concerns are more with what they don't do rather than how well they do things.

Developer Relations

Score: 2

The best defense for Apple's developer relations I hear is some variant on, "what are devs going to do, leave? The money's all on iOS!" That's all well and good, but is this the standard we hold Apple to? They can make developers as mad as they want so long as the devs have no choice but to stick with them?

You can disagree with the idea that Apple isn't doing enough for devs, but I say that doesn't mean anything; devs are angry, and whether you think they're irrational or not, the fact they're only getting more upset over time is not a good thing for Apple and Apple needs to change.

After all, "the money's all on iOS" may be true today, but loyal third party developers helped keep macOS afloat when the money wasn't there, and Apple should be shoring up these relationships right now.

Social and Societal Impact

Score: 3

This one's tough to score, but I'm going with an average score. They get points for improving privacy standards for the entire industry, for their continued (although seemingly under-appreciated) contributions to health, and laudable accessibility standards, but their China situation is tenuous and their child protection features that almost rolled out were quite misguided.

I think Apple tries to do good in general, but there seem to be some institutional blind spots that paint themselves in an unflattering light.

Overall

Average Score: 3.58

I think 2021 was a very solid year for the company. If you're a Mac fan, then I'm hard pressed to think of a year better than this for the platform, and most of their other major product lines did quite well. I think the company really needs to focus on gaining back trust from their developer community, as well as sorting out what they want to do in the home beyond the HomePod Mini (mini to what????), but in general it's full steam ahead.

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