Apple's reputation as an innovator has always been built on the refinement of existing ideas—Palm sold touchscreen phones before the iPhone, and Sony made ultra-lightweight laptops years before Apple launched the MacBook Air. Apple's focus on high-end materials and build quality with its hardware and attention to detail with its software tend to produce popular products that have the effect of sweeping aside history. Apple cultivates this aura of "specialness" by adding its own branding to industry standard components (iSight and FaceTime cameras, Retina displays, Airport wireless) and launching its products at glitzy events with plenty of talk about how "revolutionary" it all is.
It's hard to fault a company for being proud of its creations and selling them to the best of its ability. But we couldn't help but notice at Apple's latest event that many of the new features of the Apple TV, iPad Pro, and iPhone 6s and 6s Plus seemed awfully familiar. Here are six of Apple's new innovations that actually have a bit of history to them.
1. Live Photos
The new iPhone 6s and 6s Plus will automatically take a few seconds of video with every still photograph. When you press on the photo, it comes to life.
Where we've seen it before: In 2013, HTC showed a similar feature called Zoe (a reference to zoetropes) on the HTC One (M7) smartphone.
2. Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil
Steve Jobs famously derided the stylus shortly after the introduction of the original iPad, saying, "If you need a stylus, you've already failed." Apple has obviously overcome its famous founder's discontent with pointy sticks with the new Apple Pencil for the iPad Pro. And our first impresions of the $99 Pencil and the click-on $170 Smart Keyboard were pretty positive, although the prices do seem pretty high.
Where we've seen it before: Apple has been called out by many in the tech press for copying the accessories of the Microsoft Surface line, which has had stylus and keyboard covers since it first launched back in 2012. But Microsoft's history with stylus interfaces actually dates back to 2002 with its introduction of the Windows XP Tablet PC Edition operating system. In fact, one of the earliest stylus-based devices was Apple's own Newton hand-held organizer back in 1993, so maybe Apple deserves credit for bringing this innovation to market after all.
3. 4K Video
The new iPhone 6s and 6s Plus have upgraded iSight cameras with 12 megapixel sensors that we can't wait to test in our labs. These cameras also shoot video in 4K (3840 x 2160) at 30 frames per second—a first for Apple smartphones.
Where we've seen it before: Apple is pretty late to the party on 4K (or ultra HD). Smartphones have been shooting ultra HD since 2013, and our current ratings list 17 models that shoot ultra HD, including the Samsung Galaxy S6, LG G4, and HTC One M9.
4. Apple TV With Siri
The upgraded Apple TV has an all-new remote control with a touchpad, Bluetooth connectivity, and a built-in microphone. That microphone is to allow search and voice control of the Apple TV through Apple's Siri digital assistant.
Where we've seen it before: The Amazon Fire TV and Roku 3 both offer voice control already (although Roku's voice control is pretty spare). Amazon also has a pretty sophisticated digital assistant, named Alexa, that shows up on that company's Echo speaker. For the moment, it looks like the functionality that Siri brings to Apple TV could outpace what Amazon and Roku's devices can do in response to voice commands, but if Amazon brings Alexa to the Fire TV, that would definitely give Siri a run for her money. We look forward to a showdown in our labs, but until then, here's how the various streaming boxes stack up against each other.
5. Apple TV as a Gaming Device
Now that the Apple TV's tvOS platform is open to developers, expect to see plenty of iOS games ported to the big screen. There were plenty of demos at Apple's launch event of games such as Manticore Rising, Guitar Hero, Crossy Road, and Beat Sports. The new Apple TV remote can be used as a game controller and has built in motion sensors to let you interact with games through gestures. There is also some support for third-party gaming controllers.
Where we've seen it before: Roku devices and Amazon Fire TV already have robust app networks for their streaming media boxes. The Roku 3 comes with a remote that doubles as a controller and has built in motion control. Amazon also already makes its own accessory game controller for the Fire TV. But when it comes to the type of physically interactive casual gaming that Apple TV (and for that matter, all of these streaming boxes) is aiming at, it's really Nintendo that paved the way with its original Wii system. And it's probably Nintendo that stands to lose the most as Apple, Amazon, and Roku continually chip away at Nintendo's remaining audience.
6. 3D Touch
Both the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus have sensors built in to the display that can detect how much force a finger is exerting. The screens also have a haptic actuator (Apple calls it a "Taptic Engine") to deliver force feedback. The effect feels like pushing a physical button when you're pressing on a virtual button. On the iPhones, this is used to reveal pop up menus for apps without having to launch them, or to "peek" at content (for instance, you can view a web page from a link without switching to the browser).
Where we've seen it before: Actually, Apple launched this same technology under a different name earlier this year. Both the Apple Watch and MacBook use a pressure-sensitive, haptic-feedback technology called Force Touch. Now, there is an argument that the two technologies are slightly different, since 3D Touch has an additional level of sensitivity. There has also been the argument that Apple renamed the technology due to some unfortunate associations with the name Force Touch.
For those with a longer view of history, whatever you call Apple's haptic technology, it is remarkably similar in concept to—although mechanically very different from—the screen of the 2008 RIM Blackberry Storm. That phone included a technology RIM called SurePress, which provided a satisfying click whenever you pushed a button on the screen. Both SurePress and Apple's 3D Touch are essentially tricking the senses of the user—Apple uses its technology to jiggle the screen when you press in on an icon that has 3D Touch functionality, the screen of the old BlackBerry Storm was essentially one big button, so wherever you pushed, it was going to click. That said, Apple's selective use of 3D Touch in its interface is a better idea than BlackBerry's implementation. The Storm required a firm press for everything from typing to app selection.
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