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When we say Apple gear isn’t the travel tech no-brainer it used to be, we’re not really saying anything new. After years of disappointing laptops, overpriced smartphones, and lukewarm wearables, it’s no wonder we’ve been approaching recent annual announcements with low expectations.
At its latest event, the company all but confirmed it’s no longer the hardware-focused manufacturer we once knew and loved, but that’s not to say it’s a company in decline. For the first time in years, Apple unveiled something unexpected: a new focus.
After decades of producing user-friendly, durable, gorgeous devices, Apple is now setting its sights on services. This may not be bad news for travelers in the long run, but it’s certainly a major change. Read on for our take on where Apple is today, and where it looks like it’s going in the future.
Where Apple Is At
Does it feel like it’s been a while since we’ve seen innovative new hardware from Apple? It should. For the last few years, it feels like the company that every other manufacturer used to copy has been struggling to keep up with the competition.
Nowhere has this been more obvious than the Macbook range. We haven’t seen anything genuinely new since 2015, when Apple introduced the super-slim 12″ Macbook… and then promptly forgot about it. Other than a minor specification boost in 2017, it hasn’t changed at all in the last four years.
The flagship Macbook Pro gained an unnecessary touchbar, along with a terrible new keyboard that the company eventually acknowledged wasn’t up to scratch. The Macbook Air languished forever without an update, until six months ago when it finally got a better screen and new internals, but nothing else.
At a time when other manufacturers are innovating rapidly (see below), the design and functionality of the entire Macbook range has remained stagnant. The company’s attentions are clearly elsewhere, and as if to prove it, laptops were barely mentioned at all in the last announcement.
The iPhone keeps getting more expensive, but not more useful. At $1000 or more, the iPhone X was a tough pill for many Apple fans to swallow in 2017, and the XS that followed didn’t do anything to change that. Even the “affordable” XR model still starts at $749, with some noticeable downgrades.
As prices rise, the smartphone market is changing. Sales are down as people hang onto their phones longer, realising their two or three year old iPhone is good enough when the alternative is paying close to a thousand bucks for a new one.
It’s no better at the other end of the market. Other companies now offer new smartphones with premium features for as little as $400, but Apple just drops the price of its old models instead. It’s pretty hard to justify paying $450 for an iPhone 7 with components that are well over three years old.
And what to say about the Apple Watch? Despite a few early useful features, and improvements over time to problem areas like battery life, it’s hardly something for travelers to get excited about. Some are even getting rid of theirs entirely.
Where The Competition Is At
These lackluster announcements have gotten us kind of down, to be honest. Even as a long-term fan of the company (I still use my decade-old iPod Classic,) watching Apple drop the ball for so long has me wondering if I should direct my tech business elsewhere, especially when it comes to travel.
Microsoft, in particular, has gotten our attention in recent years. The firm took its sweet time to get into the laptop game, but it’s delivered well beyond expectations.
The Surface line is very impressive, and a great choice for travelers right across the range. The convertible, touchscreen devices are ideal for both work and play, whether you go for the power of the Surface Pro or the tiny, inexpensive Surface Go.
Dell’s XPS 13 has been a serious contender for the best travel laptop for years, and the latest 9380 model put the question entirely to rest. Lenovo, Acer, and others are also all offering machines that do more, cost less, or both.
When it comes to smartphones, Huawei in particular has been making headlines thanks to great battery life and remarkable camera quality at competitive prices.
OnePlus continues to turn out devices with high-end specifications for half the cost of the equivalent iPhone. Google just announced the Pixel 3a, a $399 phone with travel-friendly features like long battery life and the same camera as the class-leading Pixel 3.
The most innovative, attractive, and affordable tech gear is now coming from a wide range of different manufacturers… and these days, sadly, none of them are Apple.
Where Apple Is Going
So, if Apple hasn’t done much with its devices in the last 3+ years… what the heck has it been doing? The answer is simple: becoming a service business.
They started out slow, but both Apple Pay and Apple Music caught our attention for their possibilities for travelers. An easier way to pay worldwide, at least where it’s available? A music subscription with enough features and industry support to rival behemoths like Spotify? We started listening (literally).
Just a small part of the picture until recently, services like these are now very much front and center. Hardware took a back seat during the most recent Apple event as the company announced three big new products: a credit card, a video streaming service, and a subscription-based games arcade.
The Apple Card promises to be an inexpensive, transparent, and secure payment tool. Available this summer, it will work both digitally via Apple Pay, and physically with a titanium Mastercard. Borrowing from European fintech startups like Revolut and Monzo, there’ll be minimal fees and attractive, in-app management.
Apple TV+, the video streaming service, will feature both original and syndicated shows. Commercial channels like HBO and Showtime will also be available. The Apple Arcade will be a cross-platform subscription gaming service, with over 100 original, ad-free games available at launch later this year.
Does this mean that Apple is forsaking devices entirely? Highly doubtful. Apple’s strategy often relies on tight integration between hardware and software, so it will need to keep providing devices that are at least “good enough” for the majority of its customers.
If it does, those customers are likely to remain ardent, faithful fans — just last year, iPhone users were found to still have over 90% brand loyalty.
Ok Cool… But What About Travelers?
But while we wait to see if this is all an unlikely decoy and exciting new devices are in the works (one can only hope!), is there anything in the services switch for travelers to get excited about?
Some of these new services do have useful travel features. The credit card will have no international fees, for example, which is good news for those who frequently pay by card overseas.
Security is impressive, with real-time transaction information, and the ability to see on a map where each purchase was made. The physical card also won’t have the number, expiry date, or CVV printed on it, or your physical signature.
As for the streaming video service, Apple TV+ has its work cut out to compete with existing giants like Amazon and Netflix. Like them, it should work internationally in some form, but whether it will be as good or better for travelers is another question.
Available this fall/autumn, its success will depend largely on the price and shows on offer. Will the original content from the likes of Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams be enough to convince people to switch, or pay extra for another service?
The game arcade is probably the least-exciting for most travelers. That said, if the games are good enough and work offline, they could be a good way for avid gamers to pass the time on those endless travel days. Again, price and quality will be key here. Like the video service, all will be revealed in the fall/autumn.
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So, to recap: Apple has been slowly changing for some time, and is now plowing full-steam ahead into the brave new services world. Does this mean we should say goodbye to the design-focused, travel-friendly hardware company we once knew? Not at all.
While Apple’s services are intriguing and show some promise for travelers and others, it’s still early days. These services will only be available in the US at first, although history suggests they’ll slowly roll out elsewhere in the world over time.
There’s no real word yet either about what, if anything, will be available outside the Apple ecosystem. It looks likely that the Apple Card, for instance, won’t work without an iPhone at least to start with, if ever. If anything, these new services seem designed to lock customers further into the Apple device ecosystem, not replace it.
Apple’s betting that even if it’s not the innovative, exciting hardware company it used to be, customers will stay loyal if the services available on that hardware are good enough. If the pain of moving is sufficiently high, people generally won’t do it.
As a result, we’re expecting travelers who’ve had good experiences with their Apple gear to continue buying slightly-upgraded versions of their Macbooks and iPhones for years to come, even if it’s at a slower rate. If you’ve got the money to spend, they’ll still likely be solid, reliable devices, after all.
None of the new services are compelling enough to get users of other platforms to switch, however, at least not yet. Existing Windows and Android users have never been better served, with high-quality, genuinely innovative hardware available at comparatively affordable prices, and all of Apple’s new services have existing competitors.
Assuming things go to plan, watching Apple transform into a services business over the next few years will be fascinating. Will it prove to be a genius move that helps preserve the company’s massive profits, or a fatal misstep that heralds the beginning of the end?
Only time will tell.
Images via Apple.