Bored, bothered, and bewildered: Exploring the reaction to the 2013 iPad & Mac event
It's almost impossible to actually take in an event when you're covering it live. Whether you're transcribing what's being said, or providing play-by-play commentary, color, and analysis, you're forced to pay only partial attention to what's going on because the rest of your attention is busy digesting, translating, and expounding on it for your audience. So, after I finished doing the live iMore show during Apple's 2013 iPad and Mac event I had to go back and watch it properly in order to fully appreciate everything that went on, to get the subtleties and nuances, to catch the slips and hints, and to formulate an overall opinion of the event. I've done that twice now. And overall, I'm conflicted.
I can understand how Nick Bilton of the New York Times feels about the event:
Lately, however, [Apple] events have replaced the “wow” with the “boring.”
Bilton thinks the products are still good, but the presentation is getting old. Marco Arment experienced similar:
Something felt a bit off about this week’s Apple event.
Arment chalks it up to a combination of lack of surprise, flat presentation, repetitive messaging, and a lack of timely preorders.
I can also understand what John Gruber of Daring Fireball experienced:
Apple’s events are more like watching episodes of the same TV show, but with different bits each time. The show itself grows ever more familiar, but the content changes with each episode.
And Jim Dalrymple on The Loop:
If there was any event in recent memory that demonstrated the depth and scope of Apple’s products, it had to be this one. Every new product tied into the last and the next announcement in one way or another. Whether iOS or Mac, software or hardware, the connection was there.
So, what's going on, and how do these feelings reconcile?
The iPad mini going Retina was predictable, but would anyone rather have had it go down in display density instead? That would have been a surprise, but not a good one. The iPad turning into the iPad Air was predictable too, but would anyone have better welcomed it getting heavier and thicker? This, of all arguments against the Apple event, is the most emotional, the most human, and the most inexplicable. Absent new products, most updates to existing products will be logical and incremental. A triangular iPad Air would have been different, but it would just as likely have been stupid.
Mavericks and the redesigned Mac Pro were technically new, but Apple had already shown both off at WWDC 2013, so they were expected, and hence not really, truly new. Likewise the new MacBook Pros, even though the 13-inch ended up being thinner and lighter again, were anticipated because their product cycles are linked to Intel's processor roadmap and Haswell had already come to both the MacBook Air and iMac lines. It was their turn. So, again, not really, truly new.
The iWork and iLife app updates were new, but also existing product lines, and it turns out some people aren't very happy with them, so they get to be both not really, truly new, and, to some, unwelcome for their not really, truly newness.
Add to that Apple's massive manufacturing scale, which makes leaks more likely than ever, and we have people doing the gadget equivalent of reading a movie script before going to the theater, and then being upset the movie doesn't surprise them. Spoiler. Alert.
The world tends towards patterns, and humans are really good at spotting patterns. When things make sense, they're predictable, and as much as we love that, we also kind of hate it. We want movie sequels to be more of the same, but not the same. We love our favorite food, but the twentieth time we eat it is never as good as the first. And much of how we experience things is tied to how we feel at the moment we experience them - a sensitivity to conditions.
Making the iPad Air as thin as it is wasn't easy. Going to Retina in the iPad mini this year was even less easy. Apple barely got it done in time (look no further than the "later this November" shipping date). Pushing Apple A7 chipsets across the entire new iPad lineup wasn't easy either. It was, dare I say it, a surprise. (Or more technically, a payoff years in the making). Not having Touch ID in the new iPads, most likely because Apple is struggling to produce enough sensors for the iPhone 5s lineup as it is, was also a surprise. Also an unwelcome one by many.
Like "one more things", true surprises at Apple events are few and far between. They're the iPods and iPhones and iPads. They're 2001 and 2007 and 2010. Apple will almost certainly attempt more of them, perhaps even as soon as 2014, and we'll likely suffer the same "oh, a wearable, we expected that!" and the follow on "oh, an updated wearable, where's the iCar?!"
We're an incredibly connected, keyed in, revved up, informed, insightful, and grown up community and customer base now. We've bitten of the Apple, and we've lost the paradise of - and appreciation for - the mysteries of our youth.
In this case, with this complaint, it's not Apple that's failing to deliver, it's our expectations that can no longer reasonably be met.
Yeah. There were stumbles. Black Knight? It was like watching dad try to twerk. (Or watching me try to use twerk in a sentence.) It was a script pulled too tightly over too much event. Apple used to release new iPads in the spring, new iPhones in the summer, new iPods in the fall, and new Macs whenever they were ready. For the last two years, they've released everything but iPods, iPhones, and a smattering of Macs at one mega-event in October. It is, arguably, too much.
Mavericks, new MacBook Pros, the new Mac Pro, iWork for iOS, OS X, and iCloud. The iPad Air. The Retina iPad mini. And updates to a bunch of other Apple apps. It's almost inarguably too much. I'm tired merely from typing them all out. Yet October was when Mavericks was ready. It was when the new MacBook Pros got the Haswell chipsets they needed. It was when the iPad Air and, especially, the Retina iPad mini could be shipped before the holidays. It was Apple putting the pedal to the metal and getting stuff out as fast as technology and components would allow. It just all happened to, once again, fall on the same month. It was exhausting just to watch, never mind how exhausting it must have been to orchestrate.
Eddy Cue in his Kung Fu shirt, and Roger Rosner awkwardly, slowly helping him make mock album art was painful. But there have been awkward - and painful moments at keynotes for years. It's when it all adds up, the slips, the pace, and the pain, that it begins to create that "off" feeling.
Steve Jobs wasn't immune to this either. Tossing cameras into the audience, losing it over Mi-Fis, getting lost in small features for minutes at a time. But he was Steve Jobs. Unfortunately, he's who Apple's current slate of presenters, from Tim Cook on down are following. Worse, the romanticized memory of Steve Jobs is what Apple's current slate of presenters, from Tim Cook on down, are following. And that's an impossible position for anyone to be in. Apple is still lightyears ahead of most other tech companies when it comes to presentations, but they're held to a higher standard than any other tech company because of it.
There were moments - "mind blown", for example - that stood out, but given it was an Apple event, given all the announcements were recapitulations or upgrades, given the sheer mass of them, and given the stumbles, there weren't enough.
What would make it better is a little more relaxation on stage. A little more energy and a little more sense of fun. Apple introduced some great products. The executives knew that as well as the media. We just needed to see that they knew it. That they loved it. And that they were willing to worry less about script, and risk getting lost in it just a little more. That's the key to any great presenter - they transcend the presentation and make it feel natural, organic, alive, and human. They have fun, and through them, the audience does too.
This, I think, the complaint about the presentation is what rings most true, and what tipped the balance for everything else.
As a result of incremental updates and presentation problems, Apple's events have felt more repetitive than they have in the past. They're not, of course - Apple events have been repetitive for years - but once an illusion shatters, it tends to stay that way.
The advantage to repetitiveness is that, when it works, it's magical. It's the chorus in the song you can't stop playing over and over again. It's the signature line you're always waiting for the hero to utter. It's the moment when anticipation becomes reality.
The disadvantage to receptiveness is that, when it doesn't work, it falls absolutely flat.
There's an old saying that the key to a great fight is in the matchmaking. Fighters can have great skills and great game plans, and without changing a thing, explode one night and fall apart another. Likewise with presentations. An off night for Apple's executives, a malaise among the media, and a few flubs plus a few long moments of silent non-reaction, and things start to go south fast.
Does that mean Apple's gotten stale? Does it mean the media is hopelessly jaded? Maybe, and of course not. It's not immediately clear to me how Apple could, or even if Apple should change their event formula. Having attended numerous events by other companies, including almost all of Apple's competitors, I can objectively say no one else comes close in terms of clarity of message delivered. Apple tells you what they're going to say, says it, then tells you what they said. With big, helpful, charts detailing products, pricing, and availability.
Would sideways cars on a broadway stage, or HALO jumpers landing on the roof make Apple events more interesting? Maybe. But would it make them better? I'm not convinced.
Introducing the 5th iPad is going to be repetitive, nailing the chemistry of the event is what makes it not matter.
There were no pre-orders for the iPad Air, just like there were no pre-orders for the iPhone 5s. My guess is its for similar reasons - there's simply not enough stock to allow for meaningful pre-orders and to supply retail stores for launch day at the same time. Instead of having an almost immediate sell out thanks to low pre-order quantities in advance, and under serve people who go to the actual stores on day one, Apple is opting to give retail some breathing room by starting online orders the same day. In a perfect world, Apple would have enough iPad Air stock to have started pre-orders last week, but we live in the real world and sometimes deadlines are sprints all the way to the end.
Likewise the iPad mini, which is crossing the finish line so hot it isn't even going to be ready to ship with the Air. Whether or not Apple announces pre-orders for it remains to be seen, but there simply aren't enough to start selling this week. Even more so with the new Mac Pro. However, that's such a niche, high-end product it doesn't have the holiday sales pressure on it that the iPad line does.
Mavericks, iWork, iLife, and the new MacBook Pros shipped the same day as the event. Can't get any more immediate than that.
As Apple events go, the products announced last week were absolutely amazing. The equivalent of nuclear weapons in a conventional theater. I still can't believe they managed to get the iPad Air and Retina iPad mini ready to go as quickly as they did. Mavericks is solid, and the new Mac Pro is porn. I understand the complaints about the new iWork suite, but I also have an idea of the compromise that had to be made there. And the new MacBook Pros are pretty damn fine as well.
But the presentation was rough. They had all the elements, but they just didn't come together. It happened, but it's absolutely something that can and should be improved. We'll never see the iPhone getting introduced again, or the iPad, and we'll never again, not ever again, see Steve Jobs on that stage. But Apple's got a phenomenal set of products and the best team in the tech industry. If an when they can relax, they can let the joy out, they can pace themselves, and they can have fun up there, we'll have fun with them. The predictability, the repetitiveness, those are things that shouldn't and almost certainly aren't concerning Apple.
Keep making great products and nail the presentation, and few, if anyone, will complain about either of those things next time.