In the early 2000s — during Apple's spectacular rise on the back of the popularity of the iPod — what sticks out the most to me is the mystery and the theater of Apple's product unveilings. There were still times that Apple didn't quite pull off the reveal, like when Time magazine's Canadian website posted an image of the chrome-arm iMac G4 the night before the Macworld Expo keynote. But for the most part, Apple's early events were all surprise and no spoiler.
As hard as it is for me to believe, however, that era of Apple is long since past. It's been nearly a decade since the iPhone launched. In those days we thought we were pretty web savvy, but digital media was still largely a curiosity — an add-on to traditional print, TV, radio and the like. These days, we're all so interconnected: The prospect of a true surprise, on the order of what Apple pulled off consistently during the heyday of Steve Jobs, seems unrealistic.
Big company, big target
When I started writing about Apple back in the prehistory of the 90s, everyone would wait for the latest issue of MacWEEK to show up in the mail. Yes, that's right, kids, 20 years ago, Apple rumors were delivered by snail mail on paper. There was a small cottage industry for getting scoops from Apple in the pre-Jobs-return era, and MacWEEK was great at what it did. But it pales in comparison to what we see today, for a few reasons.
First, the size of the target: Back then, Apple was a small tech company with an even smaller, devoted customer base. Today, it is enormous; it's one of the most valuable companies in the world. The iPhone has been a huge part of that transformation, and public interest about what Apple is planning next — coupled with the secrecy Steve Jobs built into the company culture in order to pull off those theatrical product reveals — has driven rumor-seekers to even greater heights. The iPhone is one of the biggest products in the world; its future drives investors, markets, and whole industries.
Add to that the sheer scope of the operation required to manufacture the iPhone: It's a complex product with many different parts suppliers, and it has to be built millions of times over. Quite simply, the supply chain is leaky. There are too many people, in too many places, with too much reason to leak information to the people who are curious about what's coming next.
(Back before Jobs's return, Apple leaked from Cupertino. These days, Apple leaks largely from the supply chain, though Cupertino leaks do still happen. Apple employees are more disciplined and restrained — and perhaps aware of being watched — than they were back in the 90s.)
When everyone knows
Then there's the software side. One of the most interesting aspects of Rick Tetzeli's recent Fast Company profile of Tim Cook's Apple was the admission by Eddy Cue that Apple's botched Maps launch convinced the company to open up its software and services to the wider world much earlier in the process. The result is an ever-expanding public beta program.
Back in the day, unless you were an Apple developer, you'd wait for the latest version of Mac OS X to go final, and then upgrade. These days, however, pretty much anyone who wants the next version of macOS or iOS can get it within a few weeks of its announcement by filling out a form and downloading a simple installer. iOS 10 and macOS Sierra may not officially come out until September, but the most engaged Apple users will probably have been running those operating systems for months at that point.
The transparent era
Increasingly, it feels like the era of event surprise and delight is over. Delight can still exist, of course, but it's becoming increasingly impossible for Apple to surprise. All the new hardware — even entirely new stuff like the Apple Watch — is rumored months before it arrives, often in exacting detail. New software, also rumored in detail before it's announced, can be running on your devices in the days or weeks after that announcement.
But you know what? I think I might be okay with things being a bit less dramatic.
On the software side, as Apple's platforms continue to mature and the world completely internalizes the idea of free automatic software updates, it seems like the company is content for its annual software releases to gently iterate rather than shock with iOS 7-style transformations. El Capitan wasn't a particularly traumatic update from Yosemite, and for me, the macOS Sierra has been the most uneventful major Mac software upgrade ever. It's got some new features, but otherwise works just fine. iOS 10 has some more dramatic visual changes, but upgrading my iPhone and iPad to the public betas hasn't slowed me down one bit.
In terms of hardware, sure, I wouldn't mind a little more drama with the product unveiling. But, for all the reasons I've already detailed, I don't think it's a realistic dream. We don't live in a world where Apple can fly under the radar and keep tight control of its supply chain. Instead, someone who knows someone who knows a supplier can post a next-generation iPhone shell on a blog in Taiwan that's automatically translated and reposted to the point where every single person who would care about that news has seen it by the next day.
So do I miss the romance of the big, shocking reveal? I do. But we don't live in that era anymore. In this era, perhaps Apple should start playing even less coy about what it's working on next. We saw Apple executives refer to the wrist as an area of interest, months before the Apple Watch was formally announced. And Tim Cook seems to be struggling with how to admit Apple's investigating a car without actually admitting it.
I don't anticipate Apple pre-announcing its new hardware initiatives years before they ship to customers, Microsoft-style. It's just not in Apple's culture to do stuff like that, and fair enough. But I do expect Apple to continue to adapt to the era in which we live, and not keep playing the games that Jobs played to amazingly great effect in the previous decade.
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