There has been a lot of talk about bits and atoms at Apple events lately. To a point where the storytelling is getting a hit. And it’s making me wonder since when Apple became known for its manufacturing prowess? I understand A12 bionic is for user benefits. But those benefits are clear only in hindsight. Apple is not focusing on those. It’s focusing on the chip itself. Apple devices have always been better. Even earlier Macs who got hammered in the market by Windows laptops were in many ways better standalone products. And yet that’s not what Apple was about. Or at least Steve Jobs didn’t envision it to be. Hence the first thing he did was not to introduce a new product on his return. He focused on a marketing campaign.
Think Different wasn’t about selling a product. It was a way to look at the world. And was intended for Apple more than anybody else. I am not sure if Apple is still using the same storytelling lens to communicate to itself and the world. To be clear, I get the pressure of the world’s most valued company. You have to keep the business running. And Apple events are the marque places to sell the products. But does it has to be that boring? The hallmark of today’s Apple events is their new better and faster chips. And the all so powerful camera systems. And not necessarily the story of a bunch of humans on a hero’s journey.
The irony is that Apple has already well-established brand around being the best. When you already have the trust you don’t hammer on why you are the best. Customers already believe in you. Yes, you need to reinforce that trust. But the way to do that is to tell stories customers can relate to. Stories about the intangibles and subtle aspects of the relationship. This becomes even more important as you get bigger and better. Apple used to be good at it. They are losing it now despite the fact that they are building the right products. But increasingly those products are being better explained by John Gruber, Ben Thompson or Marco Arment etc. And not necessarily by Apple itself.
With that said, I wasn’t sure of my own argument at first. The question I wanted to answer was: Is it me missing Steve or is there something wrong with Apple events now a day? If it’s the latter, which I was pretty sure of internally, then how to explain it. So I went on a tirade of watching Steve’s old presentations. I intentionally excluded presentations unveiling original iPod, iPhone or iPad because of the nature of unveils themselves. And I am not going to critique the Apple Watch presentation either because we know original Apple Watch was a botched product let alone the story behind its unveil. Though Ben Thompson still managed to tell a better story for the same botched product.
So here we go. Below are the three main reasons I think Apple events are getting boring.
1. Apple’s increasing reliance on videos to launch new products. Videos are ok if you haven’t seen the product and downright boring if you have – which has been the case for the past couple of years. More importantly, they do nothing to connect the human on stage with the product he/she is talking about. Let alone connecting the audience in attendance or at home with the product. They make the audience do that part themselves. And before they are done with it Tim Cook comes back up again expecting a gasping reaction. Which quite frankly isn’t there. The cheers are mostly either because the video was nicely done or a product looked so sexy. There is no anticipation of what the person on stage is about to say or do next.
2. Apple turning blindsides on audience’s knowledge of the event. As an example, iPhone images got leaked this year. And yet Apple didn’t bother to tweak its presentation to acknowledge the fact. It felt like they are living in a different universe. While I get that’s part of the allure to not talk about what everyone else is talking about. But not even acknowledging it disconnects you from the audience. Remember Steve Jobs saying “stop me if you have already seen this” while introducing iPhone 4. That one sentence of acknowledgment made the audience realize that there is a human on stage just like them. More importantly, it made them pay more attention to what he has to say next. You have to address the elephant in the room if you want the focus to be on something else.
3. Apple disowning their old products in fear of making their new ones look bad. Old paving the way for new is the name of the game. But when you don’t appreciate or acknowledge what you told us last year, we are less likely to believe what you are telling us now. It’s a simple case of being honest. I am not saying old products need to be resold again at an event promised to show us something new. But you have to take the user journey while introducing the new. And a user’s journey starts with what they already have. When you don’t tell the vulnerable part of how you reached a new product from the previous one the new product, or the not so new, often comes as an insult to the customer’s intelligence. Again, you don’t have to go on a tirade explaining every little decision you made during the course of one year. But you have to find a way to communicate the fallible yet human side of the products.
Bonus: Zero surprise element. It’s hard to surprise people when they already know what you have or expecting you to have. Apple presenting iPhone X as “one more thing” last year is a good example. iPhone X was everything but a surprise. Everyone knew it’s coming. The magic behind “one more thing” wasn’t a grandiose product. It’s the element of surprise. This becomes even more important when your marque products are already leaked. I would have loved to see a live demo of ECG in action as one more thing this year. Or taking a picture from new iPhones on stage – the sort of which Gruber did for his review.
Speaking of Gruber, he wrote an excellent review of the new iPhones. It’s 10x better than what Apple had to say about them. It feels honest. In his review, he explained in detail why both iPhone Xs and Xs Max have remarkably better cameras compared to iPhone X. This is a story that we didn’t get from the Apple event. But we should have. Gruber actually defended Apple by saying that the reason they didn’t show side by side pictures from both the old and new iPhones was they didn’t want the otherwise excellent camera system of iPhone X to look bad. Well, that’s exactly the part necessary to tell a good story. You have to be vulnerable.
The reveal of iPhone 4 gives us hints on how Apple used to do this stuff. First, as I quoted above Steve was quick to admit that there have been leaked photos of what he was about to show you. And then followed it up with “believe me you haven’t seen it”. And that felt true because you might have seen the product you don’t know the story he was about to tell you. At 4:01 min mark he explains the publicly criticized (from leaked images) antenna lines. Fast forward it to 9:20 min mark and you see him making a comparison of iPhone 4 and 3GS’s screens. iPhone 4 was the first iPhone with Retina display. The difference between the two screens was miles and yet it didn’t prohibit him from showing that on stage. And somehow it didn’t make 3GS look any less of an iPhone. Add to that, iPhone 4 demo actually failed. And he turned it into the most exciting part of the entire event.
You can say not everyone is Steve Jobs who can turn a failed demo into a show. And that’s true. But it’s no excuse to not be vulnerable and human on stage. The real magic behind Steve’s presentations was he used to show a lot of vulnerability. He used to mock himself and the very product he was about to unveil just to build that connection. He wasn’t afraid because he was convicted of the product itself. Phil Schiller and Tim Cook, on the other hand, are presumably lacking the same level of conviction. I have never seen anyone from Apple raising his voice so much as Tim Cook did this year just to make his point. And that more than anything else is a warning sign.
Good thing for Apple is that their products are far better than anything else in the market. More importantly, though Apple might not be telling it, they do tell a story. It used to be that Apple had the perfect story around its products. And for next week or so I will avoid reading anything else. I feared press will say something that could possibly dent the perfect story in my head. I would go on finding ways to protect that image. It’s completely opposite now. Apple’s articulation of their products is falling short. It’s stomped and fixed on What with zero explanation of Why. As result, their events are leaving me lost and confused. Either I have to force myself into buying a product to feel it. Or wait for John Gruber to tell me about it.