Apple is seen by many as a cutting edge technology company that has to set the trend, but that's actually not often the case. There are some exceptions - for instance when Steve Jobs demonstrated Wi-Fi for the first time on a laptop (the iBook G3), or the time when a high-DPI ‘Retina’ Display was shown for the first time on a smartphone. But usually, what Apple does best is find great ideas, refine them with its implementation, and make them the norm, where they were wild ideas to begin with. Apple has picked up many such features over the years, and made them the de facto standard. Here are our five favourites.
1) Capacitive screens
Most touchscreen phones used to be bundled with a stylus, before the iPhone came along. That’s because most phones from the pre-iPhone era sported resistive touchscreen panels, and weren't really meant to be used with our fingers.
But note the use of the word "most". Although Apple may have popularised the usage of finger-friendly, multi-touch-enabled capacitive touch screens since 2007, the LG Prada KE850 beat Apple to the title of "the first phone with a capacitive screen", being released in December 2006.
So why is Apple is remembered more than anybody else for capacitive screens? The answer lies in the way the iOS (then iPhone OS) user interface was designed - it was much more intuitive and easy to be used with fingers than any phone seen before it. Fast-forward to today - and almost every touchscreen you’ll use today operates similarly to how the iPhone first did in 2007, and practically every phone comes with a finger-friendly capacitive display.
2) Virtual assistants
Virtual Assistants have been around in some form or the other long before the arrival of Siri on the iPhone 4s in 2011. One could think of Microsoft’s much-loathed ‘Clippy’ Office Assistant in MS Office, for example. Then there was Google’s Voice Search, and Apple’s own Voice Control, prior to Siri, which used voice recognition to process simple commands like making calls or playing music.
But Siri paved the way to make virtual assistants truly useful by understanding the way humans naturally speak. Instead of dispensing monotone commands, you could have a conversation with an artificially-intelligent assistant, capable of interpreting the meaning behind the words. The real jump was moving from a rigid list of commands, to actual language processing to understand the user's intent in a normal sentence.
Today, every virtual assistant from Microsoft’s Cortana, to the new Google Assistant, are based on the same conversational, person-emulating nature that Siri made the norm. But just because Apple was instrumental in popularising this, doesn’t mean it’s still the best at it - we found Google’s voice recognition and knowledge-base to be superior to Siri in many ways.
3) Fingerprint scanners
Fingerprint scanners aren't exactly new technology. Smartphones such as the Toshiba Portege G500 have had it since 2007, while the Motorola Atrix was the first Android phone to have a fingerprint scanner, back in 2011. Apple didn't introduce this technology until 2013, when it introduced Touch ID with the iPhone 5s. So what was the special sauce with Touch ID?
Older fingerprint scanners required you to swipe on the embedded reader to operate. It was clunky, and not always convenient to do so. With Touch ID on the other hand, you could simply rest your finger on the sensor of an iPhone, making it easier to use. Next, the placement of the scanners on phones prior were at awkward positions, which made that swipe gesture even harder to perform. Again, on the iPhone, Touch ID was easier to use because it was conveniently placed in the home button of the device. Although the placement isn't completely standard across devices (many Android phones have it at the back), Apple's method of operation is now the norm.
4) Contactless mobile payments
Among the long list of things that the smartphone has already replaced (like MP3 Players), our wallet has been on the radar for some time now. Contactless payments are not new at all - it's been big in Japan since as early as 2004. Google also made an attempt in 2011 with Google Wallet, but didn’t see meaningful adoption.
In 2014, built into the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, Apple Pay was the Cupertino-based company’s foray into mobile payments. Working in tandem with the Touch ID fingerprint authentication mechanism and the standardised NFC protocol, Apple Pay offered security and convenience over typical debit or credit cards while transacting.
Next year, Google deprecated the mobile payments feature on the Google Wallet app, instead creating Android Pay - a separate brand that works similar to the way Apple’s system does. Samsung also came up with Samsung Pay after acquiring a startup called LoopPay the year after Apple Pay was launched - bringing advantages like compatibility with regular swipe machines, not just the NFC-compatible contactless ones.
With payments, Apple is far from the market leader right now, in an area that is still developing. Despite this, the company was able to fine tune existing systems and come up with a solution that is now the de facto standard.
5) Dynamic function keys on computers
The Touch Bar that replaces the Function key row on the new MacBook Pro isn’t a new idea. The Thinkpad X1 Carbon in 2014 showcased a similar adaptive function key row, though it’s not really as vivid as a proper touchscreen used for the Touch Bar and had limited functionality. Safe to say that the idea didn’t really take off for Lenovo back then.
Microsoft’s prototype ‘Adaptive Keyboard’, which was shown even earlier, in 2010, appeared to be more feature-rich than Apple’s Touch Bar, as the entire keyboard was adaptive, not just the top area, but it never made it to production. Although Touch Bar on the new MacBook Pro is getting mixed reviews as of now, given Apple’s track record of well-planned feature implementations, it might just be the most popular dynamic function key row implementation we’ll see for long. And if it ends up working for many people, maybe we will see other PC makers implement Apple’s take on this feature, just like they ended up doing for all the ones above.