MacBook Air (2008)
After spending a bit of time demolishing the competition for accepting too many compromises in ultra-portables, Steve Jobs noted Apple’s new MacBook Air fitted inside “one of these envelopes we’ve all seen floating around the office”. And then he pulled the new computer out of one. People guessed Apple had a new notebook in the works, but not how insanely thin it would be.
Apple wasn’t the first company to offer video calls, but FaceTime on its demo wowed and surprised the audience with its set-up-free elegance and simplicity. Probably the biggest surprise, though, was Apple stating FaceTime would be ‘open’. This sadly never came to pass, but the ‘open’ idea was tucked away for the future.
Despite the best attempts of a certain tech site to ruin the surprise, few people had seen the iPad. All people knew was it probably looked like a huge iPhone. In the event, it did in fact look like a huge iPhone, and it broadly worked like one too. But the intuitive interface married with a larger display gave everyone a vision of the future of computing.
Mac Pro (2013)
By 2013, the Mac Pro had become synonymous with ongoing disappointment, and rumours suggested Apple might kill the line entirely, until the company unusually confirmed it was planning something “really different”. The result was a tiny bit Darth Wastebasket, but it was certainly very different.
“Can’t innovate any more, my ass,” exclaimed SVP Phil Schiller, before noting the new Mac Pro was unlike anything Apple had ever made. It was state of the art but oddly tiny — almost vindication for the Cube, and without doubt proof Apple could still surprise.
The U2 invasion (2014)
Not all surprises are welcome. In 2014, Apple made the misstep of welding U2’s Songs of Innocence to every iTunes library, whether you wanted it or not. Even some U2 fans who might have been overjoyed were shocked to find it nestled among other purchases. Many wondered if they’d been hacked; we thought it akin to spam. Apple later provided a tool for removing the album entirely from your iTunes account, although sadly not from the world at large.
Not all surprises are about shiny gadgets. In fact, Apple would argue its primary goal has always been the intersection of humanity and technology. In its March 2015 keynote, this was in evidence through a new framework, ResearchKit. This offered surprise upon surprise: Apple entering medical research; the scope of the system and the speed with which it could potentially help people worldwide; the way software and an iPhone could record fine details regarding relevant patient input and medical data; and ResearchKit being made open source. (No FaceTime-style U-turn this time!)
As much as we’ve enjoyed Apple’s other shocks throughout the years, this is the one that really has the potential to be truly transformative.