Was it really so long ago?
At one time, an Apple media event was big news. This was especially true when Steve Jobs was still among us. Although he wasn’t necessarily a skilled actor, he had his keynote chatter down pat. His consummate ability as a salesperson made it seem as if the new product or service was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Or the wheel, or whatever product you wish to name.
Sometimes you felt that the new gadget was little more than an indulgence, and that was probably the initial reaction to the first iPod, with 1,000 songs in your pocket.
Little did we humble tech journalists know at the time, but in that one small step, Apple had begun to revolutionize the way music was sold. It may have seemed overpriced at $399, but it meant the equivalent of over 80 CDs in a tiny case. The sound quality was only limited by the kind of audio system your Mac was using you weren’t satisfied with the so-so earbuds.
Now it’s not that the iPod was the first digital music player. There were others, but the ones I tried when I did a brief stint as a product reviewer for ZDNet were perfectly awful, and that was typical of the breed. Slow downloads of content to the player, and awful user interfaces. With iTunes as its front-end, Apple set the standard.
But that was just the first step.
With the porting of iTunes to Windows, and offering official songs for download via iTunes, the music industry began to recover from the ravages of Napster and other vehicles for music piracy.
These days, the industry earns more from streaming, largely via Spotify and Apple Music. Most people would rather have access to millions of tunes at $10 or more per month than to actually own anything. Forget the risk that, someday, that music system may be obsolete, and your files would be useless.
Over the years, Apple’s key products also received major public rollouts. When Steve Jobs died, Tim Cook became the ringmaster, but he was smart to know his limits as a performer, and let his crew help run the show.
While there have been exceptions, such as the original rollouts for the iPad and other gear, it’s mostly about the iPhone and the Apple Watch — and of course there was that services rollout last March that received mixed reviews.
But with the ravages of the coronavirus putting the kibosh on most public events, Apple has resorted to press releases and a few interview opportunities to get the word out about new gear. Well, other than the quarterly online meetups with financial analysts.
So since the iPhone 11 came out last September, we’ve learned about such gear as the iPhone SE, iPad Pro with a Magic Keyboard accessory, MacBook Air and two editions of the MacBook Pro. The Mac Pro shipped last December accompanied by a press release, but it was first demonstrated, as many predicted months earlier, at the WWDC last June.
There will be a WWDC keynote too, but that, and the entire event, will be staged as virtual events. No need to travel anywhere and put up with poor airline service and the other annoyances of most business travel.
Besides, are such events even needed anymore?
Even the expected release of the iPhone 12 and the Apple Watch Series 6 this fall could be accomplished just as well with press releases. Ditto for an expected new Apple TV, the rumored AirPods Studio over-the-ear headphones and other gear. New shows on Apple TV+ barely rate press releases, although the entertainment and tech media do cover them routinely. And I’d recommend a recent mini series, “Defending Jacob,” as one of the best the new streaming service has to offer.
Now in the old days, I’d routinely travel to California, Boston and even New York City to cover an Apple event. Forgetting the cost of the trip, I had to rush to occupy a seat near the front of the auditorium. It was fun for a few years, but then it seemed a waste of time and money. Most of the material I needed to cover an event could be researched online. Media events were usually streamed live, and a crowd is hardly needed. Well, unless a famous musical act was around to close the presentation.
When the worst of the pandemic is over, the world will be a very different place. Many people who used to buy stuff in retail stores will have joined the crowd and moved online. Even in China, where Apple Stores have reopened, more and more customers are just relying on visits to Apple’s online store.
Sure, an Apple Genius — or the third-party equivalent — are necessary when service and support are needed, but otherwise how important is it anymore to undergo the touch and feel experience before buying anything with the Apple label on it? Most new products are mainly iterations of existing gadgets anyway.
So, knowing the changes in the iPhone 11, I doubt that you need to compare it physically to the iPhone XR or the iPhone 8 for that matter. Getting up to par on using Face ID instead of Touch ID is no big deal.
When it comes to other tech companies, I can hardly think of anything that needs a public demonstration anymore. Even if you’re buying a new TV, comparing mostly similar commodity sets at a big box store is hardly worth the bother. It’s not that you can actually compare picture quality to any degree anyway, since the picture profile is tailored for a bright garish commercial environment.
If you’re comparing an LED display to OLED, the main difference will be the latter’s wider viewing angle.
I suppose you might want to listen to new audio gear in person, but that’s pretty much impossible in noisy retail environments. Even when there is a dedicated listening room with subdued lighting and a rough approximation of a living room setting, the product selections will largely be confined to the most expensive gear.
Even there, it’s just too easy for the salespeople to tailor the setup to emphasize the most expensive products — the stuff for which they receive the largest spiffs — so you may not be able to make a proper comparison. Yes, I know that visiting a local high-end audio store used to be a special experience, and it probably still is. Even then, it’s easy to trick the customer into favoring the products the store wants to push. A few subtle words about the poor quality of the product you chose might persuade you to favor the more expensive or profitable alternate they want you to buy.
Over the years, I have purchased a number of tech items, but it’s been an awful long time since I made my decision based on in-person experience. As the global economy copes with the pandemic, retail stores are clearly an endangered species.
Despite the closure of the Apple Stores, its March quarterly financials were unexpectedly robust. Only reduced iPhone sales harmed the results in any big way. Customers mostly went online regardless to complete their purchases.
From here, I expect you will see fewer Apple media events. I even wonder about the expected rollout of the next iPhone, although I might be wrong. But unless Apple plans to launch something altogether new and significant to its future, why bother with dragging the media across the country — and the world — to witness what’s going on?
Of course, there’s always virtual reality. That might be the best way to offer most of the experience of physical events — or visits to a retail store — without leaving your living room chair. We’re not quite there yet, but it’s close.
All right, actually driving a motor vehicle before you buy it is important, but virtual reality might eventually become just as useful there too.
THE FINAL WORD
The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible.
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