A few days ago, Jason Snell wrote about how Steve Jobs transformed product announcements. Of product announcements before this transformation, Snell had this to say:
Now, it’s not as if Apple didn’t do keynotes at its events before Jobs came back. (And of course, other tech companies did keynotes at events like the Consumer Electronics Show.) But all of these were gray, businesslike affairs — glorified press conferences or nerdy product announcements accompanied by boring PowerPoints. None of them could hold a candle to what Jobs did with the events once he took control of them.
There is no event that best encapsulates the pomp and pageantry and overall spectacle of a Steve Jobs Apple event like the announcement of the iPhone in 2007. Even now, knowing exactly what was coming and how the keynote would play out word for word, you can still feel the excitement in the room that day.
Apple’s media events have been of varying quality since then, with today’s “Let Us Loop You In” event being a particular low point in my estimation. Admittedly, there were events under Jobs that were also awful — I’m looking at you, iPod Socks/iPod Hifi announcement — but they were awful because the products being released were absolute shit, not due to the quality of the presentation. They might have been selling a turd, but they showed that turd off with panache the likes of which you could not imagine.
Today’s event had exactly the opposite problem, and it’s a problem that Apple, frankly, has been dealing with for quite some time. And while I love going on Twitter to mock what’s going on, it is starting to feel like I’m picking on someone who’s just trying their best but is really not good at what they’re doing, like I’m just being mean.
I hate to say it, but I think it’s time Apple stops with this sort of media event.
Before We Get Into What Went Wrong
Let’s be clear about two things here:
- I think Tim Cook is doing a hell of a job as Apple’s CEO, and I genuinely like the direction he’s taken the company.
- I don’t think Apple should stop doing media events altogether. That’d be idiotic.
However, where Steve Jobs was a showman, Tim Cook is more of a professor — a passionate professor, admittedly, and a professor whose class you might enjoy, but no one is going to be looking forward to in order to stir excitement in your blood or anything. Cook has also surrounded himself with excellent people, all of whom excel in their areas of expertise but, for the most part, have the stage presence of a slice of unbuttered whole-wheat toast.
Issue One: I Have Been To Funerals With More Energy
The single biggest issue with Apple’s event today was a complete lack of enthusiasm, and this was most apparent in the opening twenty-five minutes of the event.
In that time, we were given updates about Apple’s environmental initiatives by Lisa Jackson, Vice President of Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives, and ResearchKit, Apple’s health development platform, by Jeff Williams, Apple’s Chief Operating Officer.
To be fair, Jackson was actually fairly engaging, as far as I recall — she was given dry material to work with, and nothing she did stands out in my mind as being particularly “bad”. This might have been helped by the inclusions of yaks in one of her slides, which, like kittens or sloths, always amuse me, but that’s neither here nor there.
That ResearchKit portion, though. WOOF.
First of all, I tend to think that giving further information about a development code-base outside the context of a developer’s conference might be a bit ill-advised, but I also believe that there is enough good happening there that you might be able to garner some points with the general public if you can discuss it in an engaging way. That was heavily undermined by Williams who, frankly, might have registered as having no heartbeat whatsoever on his Apple Watch. If Tim Cook is the kinda-engaging but a little dry professor, Williams’ was the professor whose class you attend because you need to catch up on sleep. Watching the video feed of the event, I could feel whatever energy was in the room being sucked out with every word this living black hole uttered. Hell, while this was going on, my dog stopped happily playing with his chew toy and fell asleep — while I cannot prove that these incidents are related, I’m not going to be the one who insists they’re not.
Keep in mind: the event lasted roughly one hour, and almost the first half of it put us all in a coma. This is not good.
Issue Two: This Was Not A Major Announcement
I get that not everyone in the world follows Apple news the way I do — congratulations on having a life, you guys! — but not everything needs to be an announcement. And when you’re coming out of a mind-numbingly boring first half like Apple was today, you shouldn’t be burying the lede on new iPhones and iPads — devices that the general public cares about — with update on Apple Watch bands and an updated OS for Apple TV.
Apple Watch: Doing So Well That We’re Dropping The Price
Cook tried to wake the crowd up with news of new Apple Watch bands — however, this was glossed over, prices were unmentioned, and, as far as I know, there was no release date announced. Whoop-de-freakin’-doo.
He followed that up by telling us all that the Apple Watch is the best-selling smartwatch in the world, with the highest customer satisfaction rating. That was when he dropped the bomb that the Apple Watch Sport would be dropping it’s starting price by $50, “to make it available to even more people”.
Now, I don’t want to be a conspiracy nut here, but framing the Apple Watch as the “best-selling” and then immediately saying that you’re dropping the price might indicate the rumors that Watch sales haven’t been exactly where you’d like them to be are true. And immediately jumping to Apple TV and tvOS certainly doesn’t help that, either. While quietly dropping the price wouldn’t necessarily silence this, just dropping the price featuring one of the new bands you quickly mentioned you’d be releasing would have been a smoother way to sell it.
tvOS: Finally, We Finished It
They then moved to listing the improvements to AppleTV’s tvOS. Not demoing any new features, just listing them.
They basically read release notes at us, you guys. This is not waking anyone up.
iPhone SE, iPad Pro
Finally, thirty minutes into the event, we’re into the meat of today’s presentation: the iPhone SE and the 9.7″ iPad Pro. These announcements, which should have been exciting, were delivered with all the chutzpah of a waiter at a diner at 2AM announcing the day’s specials to a bunch of drunks.
Admittedly, it does not help that these products can honestly be summed up in one sentence: “Our latest products, in smaller form-factors, because we can!” The iPhone SE is the iPhone 6s with a smaller screen; the iPad Pro is the 9.7″ little brother of the 12″ iPad Pro. That’s more or less it.
Follow each of those products up with a video that essentially recaps what was presented in a somehow even more boring method, and you’ve got yourself an Apple event.
What I’d Change
There was a time when you knew something big was going to happen when Apple held a media event — now, more than ever, these events are feeling mundane, as commonplace as turning on the TV to find a rerun of “The Big Bang Theory” on TBS, and that shows in the energy displayed by the presenters.
All is not lost, however. I think there is a way to recapture that ol’ Apple Event Magic, and it’s a fairly simple two-step process.
Step One: Reduce The Number of Events
In 2013, Apple bumped up their events from two to three — traditionally, software and Mac announcements at their World Wide Developer Conference (WWDC) in June, an iPhone announcement in September, and an iPad announcement in October. Last year, they switched to March-June-September, which was necessary to introduce the Apple Watch that was coming in April.
In my mind, this schedule is unnecessarily complicated: Apple doesn’t really have enough products to fill up three entire events, and that leads to videos recapping a presentation that was literally just recapped a few seconds ago and pointless retreads of information we might have already heard several times — so help me, if I hear how the Apple Watch is great for getting notifications discretely or how people are becoming more active because they want to “fill those rings”, I might vomit.
Part of these complications comes from Apple not recognizing that they are over-complicating their product line by insisting that every device they make is of the same level of importance, which is simply untrue. Apple really has two primary product lines: OS X-based computers, and iOS-based mobile devices. The Apple Watch and Apple TV are complementary devices — the Watch currently does not work without an iPhone by design, and the Apple TV simply allows you to extend Apple’s ecosystem to yet another screen. Neither can exist in a vacuum, so treating them like they are as important as the Macs or iPhones and iPads is more than slightly delusional.
Another issue is that Apple tries to make these events a bit too much one-size-fits-all, not recognizing that there are two very different audiences that watch Apple events — developers, reporters, nerds, and weirdos like me who will watch each keynote regardless of content or length, and normal people who just want to know what’s going on with their iPhone.
With that in mind, I would cut down to two yearly events: the WWDC keynote in June and an event in September.
WWDC would be where I would not only give the deep-dive information on what is new in OS X and iOS for the coming year, but also announce and launch any Mac updates I had in the pipeline. The developers that are there are the most likely to give a shit about hardware minutia, and you’re launching things just in time for the back to school computer shopping season. Having sold computers for a number of years, I can tell you that most people don’t care about what is actually in the computer, spec-wise, but that it will not be replaced in the next few months by something better and it will do whatever they want it to do. By limiting these updates to WWDC, you’re handling those concerns in one move.
I might also consider any updates to the Apple TV to be during WWDC as well — it’s a platform that could use more love from developers, and is also an excellent add-on for the aforementioned back to school crowd.
September I would make entirely about iOS and the Apple Watch — a brief recap of the new headline features of iOS for the normals who are watching the stream (but brief enough to not bore the people who watched the whole WWDC keynote), the new iPad hardware, and cap it off with the new iPhone, which will be the real draw.
With that, you’ve taken care of all your product lines and kept each event focused on the audience it is intended for, hopefully not rendering anyone watching into a coma as Apple might have done today.
Step Two: Get Presenters That Have A Pulse
While I admire Tim Cook’s “let’s get everyone involved” style of presentation, it has been one of the biggest weaknesses of these events in the post-Jobs era. I can’t name but a handful of the people who have been paraded out to present things, and most of them I remember because they were awful. Eddy Cue might be good at his job, but he comes off like a used-car salesman. Apple’s marketing might be top-notch, but Phil Schiller is as exciting as a glass of room-temperature water. They’re just not particularly good at this, and it shows.
So who do you get? I think the answer is fairly simple: you have Craig Federighi, Senior Vice President of Software Engineering, demo and discuss the software, and ￼Angela Ahrendts, Senior Vice President of Retail and Online Stores, demo and discuss the hardware.
Federighi doesn’t require much in the way of explanation if you’ve ever seen him during an Apple event — he’s personable, funny, polished, and connects well with the audience. Occasionally, he has too much energy, but it’s easier to dial it down than it is to force someone to bring it up. Also, as the person at the head of the development of Apple’s software, he’s well suited to discuss it at length. Finally, from what I can tell online, he’s popular with developers, so the focus being on him at WWDC would help keep people engaged.
Ahrendts hasn’t been featured in an Apple event as far as I can remember, but I’ve seen video of her on stage at Dreamforce 2012 as Burberry’s CEO, or on “60 Minutes” during Charlie Rose’s piece on Apple, and she’s pretty damn good. Her energy is different from Federighi, which would make her an excellent counter-point to him, and the times I’ve seen video of her, she comes off as polished and focused, which is sorely lacking in Apple’s presentations at the current time.
You have Ahrendts and Federighi with Tim Cook giving updates on the business and Lisa Jackson to discuss important initiatives Apple is focusing on and suddenly you have a tight presentation that just might keep people engaged.
Make Apple Events Great Again!
Look, I love Apple to a degree that some might call “unhealthy” — I own far too many of their products, and I’d be lying if I told you that I wasn’t going to own the new iPad Pro as soon as it was available. And I admit that I’ve likely given more thought to Apple’s presentations than is justifiable in any way at all. But my love for Apple makes me want to see them do well, and I truly think that these events are hurting them more than any other perceived weakness that they might have. If someone with my devotion level to Apple is bored as hell and disengaged with their presentations, I can only imagine the level of disinterest a normal human being might have. And that, unfortunately, is the path that leads to people not caring about your products, which is how companies start to go downhill.
I don’t want that for Apple. If it happens, I’ll have too much disposable income and probably get into crack or something. And no one wants that less than I do.