At the start of 2012, Apple customers and employees were emerging from the initial mourning period for founder and chairman Steve Jobs. Twelve months later, with the first full post-Jobs year in the books, Apple is (mostly) on track with some remarkable successes and only one or two noticeable calamities.
Here's my highly idiosyncratic list of pleasant surprises from the year that was. You can browse my colleagues' lists here.
Best Free Upgrade: Hulu Plus on Apple TV. There's nothing better than getting new tricks out of an old dog, and with July's unexpected addition of Hulu Plus to the Apple TV, I found new delight in my little black hockey puck. The other subscription, purchase and streaming services on the Apple TV are all worthwhile, but I was already a Hulu Plus subscriber. I'd jumped through several hoops to get VGA and audio from my MacBook into my TV for those instances when I wanted to screen a Hulu show in larger format; it was enough of a pain to discourage me from getting the most out of my subscription.
Hulu's ad-supplemented service might not be a perfect all-you-can-eat TV option, but it certainly makes cord-cutting a more appealing possibility. Having it on the Apple TV gives Apple's "hobby" more credibility as a true living room reformer. Whether or not the hypothetical "Apple television" debuts in 2013, the current offering (including the March hardware upgrade to 1080p) has some legs.
Honorable mention: We had to wander through the wilderness for a few months -- quite literally, in some cases -- before finding our way to a better navigation and mapping solution on iPhone. Not everyone rejected Apple's new Maps app. But for those who had issues, the problems were real and really annoying. Never mind the 3D views, Siri integration and free, fast turn-by-turn directions that we'd been waiting years to get; if point A to point B ends you at point nowhere, that's no good.
Thanks to the introduction of Google's new app in December, we have something close to the best of both worlds. An improving, imperfect on-board solution that's still offering next-gen functionality as the underlying POI database catches up; plus another free, sleek and easy Google-powered app that's delivering more (TBT navigation! Voice!) than the old app ever did.
Best Hardware Milestone: MacBook Pro with Retina display. Six months in, and some days I'm still not sure I made the right choice in going for the Retina 15" MBP over a fully souped-up MacBook Air. But then I spend a week away from my desktop, absorbed in the so-sharp-it-might-cut-you screen of the MBP and the remarkable performance of the all-solid-state architecture, and the extra weight in my backpack doesn't bother me so much.
Apple's great leap forward in portable displays comes with a steep sticker price, and there are still a few rough edges with naïve screenshot tools and key un-Retinized apps that show up as blocky as refugees from MacPaint Mountain. (I'm looking at you, ScreenSteps 2.) But Apple's willingness to push the envelope on HiDPI display technology -- and customers' comfort level with buying in -- once again puts the company's portable computing offerings at the top of the heap.
Honorable mention: No word yet from Thor's lawyers, but the mobile-to-Mac revamp of Apple's peripheral connectivity with Thunderbolt and Lightning has caused less pain than I expected and delivered more benefits than I hoped. The pace of Thunderbolt peripheral releases has sped up from a stall to a modest trot, and Mac support for the fast USB 3 standard has also helped ease the aggravation of dealing with dongles and adapters for legacy FireWire gear. On the iOS side, the Lightning connector delivers more mechanical reliability while maintaining solid compatibility with docks, clocks and chargers via the 30-pin adapter lineup. Of course, the Lightning adapter wouldn't have anything to connect to without the handsome iPhone 5, fourth-gen iPad and iPad mini.
Worst Surprise: For anyone who was hoping to cash in on resale of an iPad 3rd generation, it's got to be the "early" introduction of the Lightning-equipped fourth gen iPad. You live and you learn.
Best OS Overhauls: iOS 6 and Mountain Lion. Neither of Apple's big OS releases this year escaped criticism and controversy. iOS 6 faced the aforementioned Maps migraines, and Mountain Lion's Gatekeeper app security and Facebook integration. But the benefits of the new systems outweigh the drawbacks. Mountain Lion's on-board Dictation support, Notification Center and baked-in AirPlay mirroring helped make 2012 easier than 2011. iOS 6's panorama photos, improved Siri, Passbook, expanded Open In menu, the indispensable Guided Access and even Maps brought the mobile platform forward.
Honorable mention: This was the year the Mac App Store came into its own as a valid, vibrant channel for Mac software. Many of my favorite Mac apps have found a home on the MAS; several more, unfortunately, have backed off the store as the sandboxing restrictions proved too challenging or detrimental to core functionality. Here's hoping that the 2013 MAS delivers some of the flexibility these apps need to thrive.
Favorite Mac Apps: It took too long (really, way too long) for Cultured Code's Things to deliver cloud synchronization of tasks -- but now that it's here as part of Things 2, it's made my daily routine a lot easier. All my iOS devices and my Mac have the same to-do list instantaneously, with no fuss. (Yes, I could get some of the same mileage out of iCloud and Reminders, but I need more categorization and tagging options in my crazy register of things that are overdue.) Likewise, the newly streamlined BusyCal 2 delivers a solid and reliable calendar for anyone who needs more than Apple's Calendar or Microsoft's Outlook can supply.
Honorable mention: The dead simple screenshare/remote meeting tool join.me, from the fine folks at LogMeIn, works great on the Mac and surprisingly well on the iPad. It's so much easier than most meeting tools, it's almost unfair. Bonus points for the feature that lets you hand off control and sharing to one of your attendees, then reclaim the mouse for your own; as a last-ditch, low-fi remote support tool (when Messages screensharing and Back to my Mac falls down) it's a delight.
Favorite iOS Apps: I never imagined that a third-party "killer app" would revitalize an iOS baked-in feature, but I stand corrected. Loren Brichter's Letterpress is that app, and it's singlehandedly made Game Center cool again. I was also excited to see the official Khan Academy iPad app make its debut, for all your math video needs.
Readdle's Calendars app is a must-have for anyone wrangling multiple Google calendars and reasonably priced at $6.99; I've dinged Readdle in the past for some questionable UI choices in its apps, but Calendars is clean and clever.
Finally, for maintaining my inner serenity (to say nothing of my multiple time-zone sleep patterns), I depend on the library of Andrew Johnson relaxation apps. You can get a taste of Johnson's gravelly Scottish tones in the free Relaxing Holidays app, or browse his entire hypnotherapy catalog on the App Store and in the audiobooks section. (Bonus points for one of the best app names of all time, if you imagine it being shouted by an angry spouse as you head out to the pub.)
Favorite Accessories: Speaking of behavior modification, the Fitbit activity tracker has given me insight into my sleep and fitness level in 2012 (spoiler alert: it's not so good), and the motivation to step it up in 2013. Fitbit's Ultra pedometer, my model, has been discontinued in favor of the One tracker; the new unit adds direct wireless sync to Bluetooth 4.0 iOS devices.
Since I do quite a bit of flying, the automatic noise cancellation in the Fanny Wang 3000 Series headphones makes a big difference in podcast and music listening onboard. The FW 'phones are somewhat oversize for everyday use, but in noisy environments they're exactly what the ear doctor ordered.
Also in the road warrior category, I spent a lot of 2012 looking for the perfect iPad keyboard/case combo. I may not have found the ideal fit, but until I do the Adonit writer keyboard and case has made my iPad a more effective writing tool. The keyboard is leagues better than the cheap Bluetooth options from some other vendors (ahem, Boxwave) and the easy-clip frame lets me quickly transition from convertible to standalone iPad use.
Best Raging Against The Dying Of The Light: Macworld | iWorld. When Apple made its last official appearance at Macworld Expo in early 2009, the conventional wisdom was that the tradeshow and conference would not survive much longer without the imprimatur of the mother company.
So much for the conventional wisdom, I suppose. While smaller and scrappier, the show continues to draw an audience of eager Mac and iOS fans, developers and creative pros. For last year's event, Paul Kent and his team at IDG rebranded the show as Macworld | iWorld, acknowledging the shifting platform emphasis toward mobile while making the show's name much harder to print correctly. The upcoming fourth post-Apple edition will be kicking off on January 31 and running through February 2. TUAW will be there, and after a one-year hiatus, so will I -- and I'm looking forward to seeing many of you there, too.