"Make no mistake about it. This is the year for Windows," Steve Ballmer said in New York in September. "Windows phone, Windows tablets, Windows PCs. It is the year for Windows." As is often the case, Ballmer was wide of the mark. Make no mistake, 2012 is the year of Apple. The year Apple became the biggest company in the world, successfully accused Samsung of plagiarism in court, and finally released the iPhone 5 — a beautifully fine-tuned device. It’s now also the year Apple actually responded to calls for a miniature version of the iPad.
The perfect foil to the instinctual, volatile Steve Jobs, Apple CEO Tim Cook is the cerebral strategist. With both Amazon and Google encroaching on Apple’s territory with their sub-$200 7-inch tablets, Cook yesterday unveiled the long rumored iPad mini, a move the purist Jobs condemned just two years ago. "The 7-inch tablets are tweeners: too big to compete with a smartphone, and too small to compete with an iPad," Jobs once said on an Apple earnings call. Websites were hard to read and a 7-inch screen would splinter his beloved App market and apps are the lifeblood of this ecosystem. He predicted that they would be “DOA.” For a while, they were.
Tim Cook’s year
People, however, come in all shapes and sizes and apparently, that’s also how they like their tablets. The Kindle Fire and Nexus 7 are certifiable consumer hits. Where the stubborn Jobs may have stood his ground in his quest for perfection (like he did a generation ago with the desktop computer market), Cook reacted, quickly plugging the final hole in Apple’s consumer electronics empire. Along with the iPad mini, the company also announced refreshed MacBooks, a 4th-gen iPad just seven months after the “new” one, and an updated Mac mini. The amount of new toys the company has slung this year is unprecedented in its history. Attack and defend, command and conquer. This is Tim Cook’s Apple and Apple is king, ready to prey on our obsession with thin and light.
And this is Cook tightening his grip. Has any company ever been this ridiculously dominant across this many categories? Every Apple product — Maps notwithstanding — is essentially best-in-class. Retina everywhere, their products are paradoxically thin to the point of being environmentally unsound. The (now sleeker) iMac is the best “chill” computer, the Air is the sexiest ultraportable and the new MacBook Pro is the most beautiful laptop I’ve ever seen. The iPhone 5 is must-have and still soldout. Now they’ve finished consolidating the tablet market with the iPad mini.
With the mini priced starting at $329 — over a hundred bucks more expensive than its direct rivals — Wall Street had a hissy fit, sending Apple shares tumbling 20 points or 3.26 percent. Our smartypants bankers forgot that Apple doesn’t meddle with the plebes. The company made sure to hammer the point with a side-by-side comparison with an “Android tablet” during the keynote. It’s not like we buy Apple things because they’re cheaper, we buy them because they’re the prettiest and easiest to use. We buy them because they’re better. $130 better.
Cook’s final big hurrah before what is sure to be a blowout holiday season, the presentation was a preemptive celebration as he shot off impressive stats from his PR quiver. 5 million new iPhones sold in the first weekend. 200 million devices are on iOS 6 after just one month in spite of Maps. 35 billion apps downloaded. The Mac is now the “number 1” desktop and notebook in the United States. Next, the world.
Cook will want to soak up the moment, however. With the release of the iPad mini, all the low hanging fruit is gone. If Jobs was about refining products, Cook is about refining processes — maximization. But everything is already running at peak performance, so well in fact that suppliers and laborers and consumers around the world are struggling to keep pace. You can only keep people captivated with thinner, sharper, and longer battery life for so long. Soon, the onus will be on Cook to introduce a new product category — such as the purported Apple television.
Questions remain. Will he be able to bend the cable cartel to his wishes, like Jobs managed so ably with music labels and book publishers? Will he be able to convince us we even want an Apple TV? Will he have the vision to see that “Next Big Thing?” Meanwhile, eager enemies are closing in. Android is here to stay, Samsung will only get bigger, and Windows 8 is coming. But that’s all next year and beyond. 2012 will always be the year of Apple.
Follow Alec on Twitter: @sfnuop