It's easy to write off 2013 as a year without any real design innovations. The first great smartwatch is going to have to wait till next year — sorry, Samsung and Pebble — and we didn't get a new Apple product that wasn't a riff on a previous one. And Google didn't make any headway with Glass.
But it wasn't a lost year by any stretch. We might not look back on 2013 as the watershed year that 2007 was, but even without a big bang, there were a number of advancements that made us look, touch and think just a little different.
Newspapers and magazines have always been about content, but somewhere along the way it got lost in a sea of flashy graphics and one-your-face advertisements. But the new generations of tablet publications are working hard to strip away the clutter and open up a whole new world of reading on our iPhones and iPads, even if we have to use Newsstand to get to it.
Even more than its trademark lowercase "i," Apple's surnames come with certain expectations. Air implies tremendous lightness and thinness. Mini means small, but not less. And Pro is the absolute cream of the crop, the finest mix of power and performance money can buy.
The iPad is only a post-PC device if you're a person who isn't looking for the "incredibly great computer in a book" that Steve Jobs predicted three decades ago. It may be true that people are buying a lot fewer PCs, but anyone who uses a Mac for something their iPad can't do — serious photo editing, design work, video rendering, etc. — has probably bought one within the last year or two. For them, a true post-PC device hasn't really been made yet.
For most of 2013, we've been reading about Apple's supposed decline. As the weeks ticked by without any new products to speak of, the discontented din grew louder, declaring innovation was dead in Cupertino, with the ghosts of the iPhone and iPod forever haunting the halls at 1 Infinite Loop.
If its critics would do a bit of homework, they would see that Apple's innovations aren't born out of thin air; they follow a pattern of intense focus and fine-tuning. In short, Apple looks to its own products for inspiration.
You probably remember the WWDC demo. Under the biggest spotlight on the grandest stage, Anki co-founder and CEO Boris Sofman unrolled an 8-foot mat and introduced the world to a new kind of gaming experience, one where the cars are real, but the reality is still virtual.
"If you look at toys from 20 years ago and compare them to toys today they are, minus a few differences, pretty much the same thing," said Hanns Tappeiner, co-founder and president of Anki. "We saw a big gap between (toys and video games) and we thought we could use robotics and AI to bridge that gap, to combine real physical things with some of the things we love about video games. And that's what we did with Anki Drive."
As much as we wanted to believe pie-in-the-sky rumors of iWatches and iTVs, 2013 played out pretty much according to script. But 2014 is wide open — and something tells me it's going to be a huge year for Apple. So what does Apple have in its bag of tricks?
Back in 2009, Jonathan Zufi had a dream. Inspired by a memory of a programming game he played as a kid, he set out to provide a complete depository of Apple's diverse catalog, a place where people could leisurely explore and appreciate its history.
And ICONIC was born. Loaded with more than 650 images, the stunning coffee-table book presents a history of Apple's products as seen through Zufi's lens. But these aren't Best Buy catalog shots or even Apple PR images; flipping through the pages of ICONIC is like having Zufi explain everything he admires about Apple. The angles, shadows and lighting all give a unique perspective to the subjects, like you're looking at them for the first time.
When I downloaded the iOS 7 beta a few days after the WWDC keynote, the first thing I noticed was how long it took for my home screen to appear. Every time unlocked my phone, there it was, a very noticeable transition that delayed my ability to start tapping. All in all, it took about a half-second longer than iOS 6 to get to a useable home screen; it might not seem like much, but it breaks down to about two hours a year based on my own usage.
And it's not just unlocking. Across iOS 7, animations add a fraction of a second to most navigational actions, from opening folders to closing apps. I barely noticed the transitions in iOS 6. They were functional, neat and fast, never drawing unnecessary attention away from the task at hand. Now they seem to demand my attention.
As he was wrapping up his Macworld 2007 keynote--you know, the one with the iPhone--Steve Jobs quoted Wayne Gretzky, comparing his playing philosophy to Apple's: "I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been." It was a testament to Apple's innovation, its ability to see three steps ahead of its competitors.
The Mac. The iMac. OS X. The iPod. The iPhone. The iPad.
Critics like to point to this track record as proof that Apple is no longer innovating, no longer skating to where the puck is headed. There's a certain perverse logic this line of thinking: if tens of millions of people will rush out to buy a new iPhone just because it has a better camera or a fingerprint sensor, then Apple could conceivably rest on its laurels, failing to realizing the tide is turning before it's too late.