THE END OF APPLE MEDIA EVENTS?
In the days when Steve Jobs ruled the roost at Apple, a Macworld Expo keynote was a very special event. Even though his patter seemed nearly off the cuff, you just know it was all carefully rehearsed. That’s just elegance of his delivery, to make everything seem as if he were saying it all for the first time.
In that, he was the consummate actor.
But where Jobs truly excelled was to make you believe that the product or service he introduced was something really special, something that had never, ever been done before. It didn’t matter if it was little more than a minor refresh of the previous year’s model.
And sometimes the presentation’s pretensions met its promise.
Take the 2001 introduction of the very first iPod. Jobs touted the tiny device as providing “1,000 songs in your pocket.” It met the promise due to a tiny hard drive to store all that extra stuff.
The history of the iPod, how its inventor Tony Fadell convinced Jobs to take a chance doesn’t matter. It was the beginning of Apple’s metamorphosis from a computer company to a consumer electronics company.
To most of us in the tech media at the time it was little more than an indulgence, an overpriced toy with little practical value. Well, until you began to get an inkling of how it would ultimately revolutionize the music industry, coming at a time when Napster and other peer-to-peer music piracy sites were ascendant.
Of course, the real change began to happen when Apple introduced SoundJam — well, it was SoundJam when Apple acquired the app — and revised it and redubbed it iTunes.
In 2007, Apple introduced the ultimate iPod, which just happened to be a portable personal computer and a smartphone. We began to learn how to type on glass with the iPhone, and its basic form factor soon became the industry standard.
Year after year, Steve enveloped us in his infamous “reality distortion field,” making us believe that even the most mundane announcement was something real special, and just how lucky we all were to are a part of it.
Now in the 1990s through the mid-2000s, I made it a point to attend each Macworld Expo when it was held in Boston and, later, New York. I also managed the west coast events where I could. In those days, I had the added benefit of representing a tech publication, or a major newspaper chain, which gave me more-or-less special access, except for those with VIP passes.
With years of hard-one experience over the proper methods to wait on lines in New York City, I managed to arrive early enough to get close to the front of the line among my fellow journalists. It thus gave me a close view of the goings on.
Long before Steve Jobs left this plane of existence, I had begun to focus on the online video presentation. I could always assure myself of seeing them from a close-up view, with the added benefit of saving on the airplane and hotel bills.
When Tim Cook took over as CEO, and attempted to emulate the Jobs’ playbook, he didn’t do a very good job. He tried real hard, and he has a calm, reassuring presence, but he didn’t have Jobs’ charisma, nor the skills of a consummate salesperson.
Over time, Cook got better at his craft. Perhaps it was experience, perhaps it was lots of practice or a combination of both, but he also learned to cede the stage to others who might be able to provide a better delivery.
Take Apple software executive Craig Federighi, who had the skills and the subtle sense of humor to do a credible job. Marketing VP Philip Schiller was also able to hold his own.
Over time, the keynotes became just too predictable. It didn’t matter if a famous musical star, or A-list actor, made a cameo. Source of Apple rumor sources learned how to fathom the real inside details of a new Apple product or service. Even though Apple might deliver a surprise or two here or there, most of the details had already been published in the days and weeks ahead of a media event.
Sure, perhaps the Mac Pro, the failed 2013 version, and the one that debuted in 2019, weren’t quite fleshed out so weak ahead of the event. That’s largely because at least some of the production was centered in the U.S., and thus the Asian supply chains didn’t reveal all of the details.
Yet it was also true that the latest Mac Pro wasn’t really such a surprise in retrospect. As was hinted at Apple’s promises in the two years preceding its launch, it was indeed a modular computer with easy upgrades. The form factor retained the cheese grater surface of the “classic” Mac Pro, and it was very much a natural evolution of the original product. Had the Mac Pro remained under regular development over the years, Apple might still have gone in the direction it took.
Again, you didn’t need a media event to glean the key details. Mac professionals merely had to read the spec sheets, and the benchmarks, to know what they were getting without having to attend a press conference. That was just as true with any new Apple device or service.
The basic structure of the iPhone and, in fact, the iPad were established with the original versions. The newest models are mostly logical progressions, and, again, watching Apple executives — and their developer partners — tell us what a truly wonderful gadget they’ve created hardly helps anymore.
A few news reports and early tests say it all; well, except for being able to see all that gear in person at an Apple Store or third-party reseller. With the coronavirus keeping most Apple Stores closed, the newest MacBook Air and iPad Pro merited a press release. If you knew anything about the prior models, that’s all you needed.
So, the upgraded scissor keyboard, identified as a Magic Keyboard, presents the same basic feel as the standalone Magic Keyboard. So if I had a MacBook Air or 16-inch MacBook Pro on my shopping list, I’d know all about the typing experience without a personal encounter. This column is, in fact, being written on a Magic Keyboard.
When it comes to future Apple events, the days are numbered. The next WWDC will be virtual, and when developers look at all the money they’ve saved traveling to California and staying at an overpriced hotel, they will, I expect, see the benefit of just staying home.
Most Apple product intros will be perfectly served by a press release, along with perhaps a YouTube video or two when something visual is appropriate.
I will miss the public events, but they are no longer needed. Tool bad it took a pandemic to show the way, but the writing was already on the wall.
But I still remember the old days, waiting in those lines, seated just a few rows from the stage, saying “bless you” once when Steve Jobs sneezed while seated in front of me at the Mac OS X rollout. But times had to change.
THE FINAL WORD
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