Perhaps more so than any other company (tech or otherwise), Apple is a true master of the keynote presentation. Thanks to the stranglehold of secrecy that surrounds its internal workings, over the years the Cupertino giant has grown accustomed to revealing new products with all the surprise, shock and awe of a David Copperfield finale. In the early years especially, Apple Event audiences were never entirely sure what they were going to get, and that was part of Steve Jobs’s own special kind of magic.
Thanks to the stranglehold of secrecy that surrounds its internal workings, over the years the Cupertino giant has grown accustomed to revealing new products with all the surprise, shock and awe of a David Copperfield finale. In the early years especially, Apple Event audiences were never entirely sure what they were going to get, and that was a big part of Steve Jobs’s own special kind of magic.
These days, however, the “great reveal” has slipped somewhat. Like a child who catches sight of the rabbit under the table the secret is often out long before the scripted moment arrives, leaving a crowd that’s simply waiting to have their suspicions confirmed. Such was the case with yesterday’s revelation of the new, four-inch iPhone SE.
Yet, even with a hefty amount of prior knowledge circling the airwaves, when the announcement itself is big enough then the showbiz effect can still take hold. The Apple Watch, for instance, was one of the worst-kept secrets in the industry, yet still caused that familiar rush of excitement and speculative commentary that can only equal a landmark Apple launch.
The reason? The product itself was new and novel enough to feel like a genuine advancement for the company (and, by extension, the consumer tech sector as a whole). Tim Cook branded the product as “the next chapter in Apple’s story,” and even among those who remained resolutely skeptical that the world really wanted smartwatches at all (they were, after all, a decidedly old idea), the sense among those watching was that Apple was still a company committed to finding new directions for growing its business.
Fast forward to yesterday’s event, and one look at the crowd’s reaction to the iPhone SE says a lot about where Apple is headed these days. The lukewarm patter of applause meted out at news of the SE’s name, technical specifications and price point spoke of an audience that has become increasingly numb to the hyperbolic tactics the company once made its name with. Fastest ever? Yawn. Top of the range components? Snooze. For the most part it felt like much of that magic had gone, and that all parties in the auditorium — both on stage and in front of it — were simply going through the motions.
And why is that? Granted, the cat was long out of the bag, and tinkering within an existing product line is always going to be far less spectacular than launching an entirely new one (a practice typically reserved for the company’s September events). Yet, more than both those things, the decision to create a “new” iPhone housed inside an old shell, and to price it lower than all its sister products, feels less like a step forward than it does a dig downward.
As a product, the iPhone SE was an entrenchment as opposed to an exploration, and that runs contrary to everything that once made Apple as a company so compelling.
Once upon a time, Steve Jobs was a man driven by an ideology, and that ideology ran through Apple like an unwavering titanium core. He was a man who believed “I would rather gamble on our vision than make a ‘me, too’ product,” yet it feels like Apple’s vision is something in short supply these days.
While yesterday’s announcement was keen to point out that the company sold some 30 million four-inch iPhones last year, Jobs was a man who had famously argued “How [can] somebody know what they want if they haven’t even seen it?” He believed that “You’ve got to have a problem that you want to solve; a wrong that you want to right,” yet in the case of the iPhone SE, that problem is entirely of Apple’s own making, and yesterday they effectively owned up to it.
I don’t claim to know exactly how anyone on this Earth truly thinks — not least when that person is as labyrinthine as Steve Jobs and happens not to be around to shed any further light on the matter. However, at the very least I would say it’s unlikely he would’ve consented to releasing a product that simply pandered to the market in the way the iPhone SE does.
And yet, in a cruel twist of irony, Apple has used the final iPhone design that Jobs himself ever worked on as a vehicle for steamrollering over his principles. This comes just a year after they released an Apple stylus — something Steve was notoriously opposed to throughout his professional career.
So why did yesterday’s Apple Event fall somewhat flat not only in the sleepy eyes of the Cupertino Town Hall audience, but in those of observers worldwide? Not because the iPhone SE is a bad product (in fact, I think it’s very necessary and I may well buy one myself), nor because folks everywhere knew it was coming. It was more because it represented Apple’s latest step away from being an exciting, innovative and contentious company, and closer towards being one that simply wants to tick every commercial box it can.
And, ultimately, there’s precious little magic in that.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.