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The age of the dramatic Apple event reveal is over, and that's okay

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.

Former lead editor at Macworld for more than a decade, wrote about Apple and other tech companies for two decades. Now I write at Six Colors and run The Incomparable podcast network, which is all about geeky pop culture, and host the Upgrade and Clockwise tech podcasts.

24 Comments
  • According to almost the entire tech press though ... while this article is a good way to prepare for this years rather dull reveal of the new iPhone, *next* year, everything you say here will be incorrect. It's also likely incorrect for other products, especially those we don't even know about.
  • Oh? Next year's OS versions won't be iterative? Next year's hardware won't leak with months to go? (We've already had leaks about next year's iPhone?) Let me know when Apple announces one of those other products we are caught completely flat-footed about. I'll be the first to cheer... but it's not gonna happen.
  • "We've already had leaks about next year's iPhone?" We've had ZERO "leaks" about "next year's iPhone". We've only had rumors! What we have had so far are just rumors fabricated by people who are NOT at Apple, and who have NO verifiable facts about the iPhone 8. The dictionary definition of "rumor" is:
    "a currently circulating story or report of uncertain or doubtful truth" In fact, here we are only about 10 days before Apple introduces its next major product release, the iPhone 7, and Apple has been able to keep a tight lid on leaks about it, even though the new phones have already started production. We have seen many fan-made mockups of what people "think" the backside of the iPhone 7 will look like, but if you review those mock-ups you will see that no two of them are exactly the same. Some have different colors, some Plus models have a Smart Connector while others don't, the camera humps look different in design and size, etc. We haven't even seen a photo of a real iPhone 7 yet... And that wold be just what the REAL backside looks like (which, let's face it, is the LEAST important aspect of what people buy an iPhone, or ANY smartphone, for). We know NOTHING about the very important things like: the performance improvements in the A10 processor; what can the new GPU do; how has Apple improved the display; and MANY other technological advancements and improvements to the user experience that are still unknown to us. Eliminating all rumors, we currently know absolutely nothing about the iPhone 7. At less than 2 weeks away from its introduction, that in itself is an incredible accomplishment. Going by past experience, every new iPhone introduced in the past 9 years has brought major improvements and has resulted in a smartphone that offers the best performance (even last year's iPhone 6S outperforms recently released phones like the Samsung Galaxy models) and the best user experience available. On that consistent historical basis, it would be irrational to believe the negative innuendo and baseless rumors that imply that this new iPhone will be any less exciting or innovative than each of the iPhone models that preceded it. The sensible conclusion is that Apple's introduction of the iPhone 7, like all previous iPhone introductions, will reveal technologies and features that will elevate the iPhone 7 to be even further ahead of its competition.
  • "Next year's OS versions won't be iterative?" Duh! Every version of OS X and iOS has been iterative. It is like that with ANY operating system, unless you throw out the old operating system entirely, and start from scratch with an entirely new operating system! But "iterative" DOES NOT exclude "innovations" that surprise us when they are announced. Until Apple announced the betas of the new macOS Sierra, iOS 10, watch OS, and TV OS, we had no knowledge of the many advancements (extended AI, Siri's new features and extensibility, Apple Watch login, PIP, and the many other features that add to our productivity and user experience). Your hindsight may be 20/20, but you (like everyone else) did NOT know of all the great changes in Apple's OS's until they were actually announced by Apple. Yes, you and everyone else were "caught completely flat-footed" this time around again. So if you are true to your word, you will "be the first to cheer" after learning about Apple's new products and services. ;-))
  • Jason
    I think you/ we are spoiled and possibly re-writing history. Any product that was iterative always leaked before it was announced, even in Jobs' day (the redesigned MacBook Air in 2010 or the iPod Nano 3rd Gen for example). But the truly new categories, like the 1st iPhone, or the 1st MacBook Air, were always a surprise. Even if you knew Apple was working on a phone for example, you had no idea what it would look like or how it work. Even in my MacBook Air example above, no one knew an 11-inch model was forthcoming. Even today, the genuinely new products, like iOS 7, the new Mac Pro, Apple Watch, Apple Pencil & Mac OS X Yosemite (to name a few) were genuine surprises to most in the tech press. Apple still has the power to surprise- the only difference from the Jobs era is that any product they plan to ship immediately after announcing can't possibly stay a secret anymore. But any product that is still at the design phase (like my examples above) can still surprise. Apple should do more reveals at the design phase so that months before something new comes out, we get the delight of an Apple product reveal. It would have been smart to reveal the new MacBook Pros at WWDC. Now when it is finally revealed it will not be a surprise thanks to all the leaks we've seen already.
  • Apple is largely been an iterative company. iPhone, iPod, Mac.. They make success by continually pounding at it every year. iPhone was never a 'instant' success.. it took almost 10 years to build the numbers they are at now.. 2017 might bring some measure of new.. thats it.. Jason's article is spot on..
  • I agree! That's the greatness that is Apple. They get things right before moving on to other things. I would much rather have the same look with better tech & code then a new look that falls flat. Sent from the iMore App
  • I agree with the author's assessment of the current and future situation. And, although I enjoyed the excitement of the old product unveilings, I am also fine with no surprises. The bottom line (for me anyway), is Apple (and other tech companies) continuing to innovate and deliver products that enhance lives. Surprises are nice but at some point the thrill of Christmas morning does wear off as we get older.
  • I still enjoy watching it, regardless.... Sent from the iMore App
  • Ummm....if you like surprises and miss the romance of the reveal at the keynotes, do what I do: stop reading the rumor articles. If you see the word "iPhone" with the next iteration number after it in a headline, quickly avert your eyes and move on. With a little self-discipline, you can have fun watching the keynotes once again! Really, it's not that difficult.
  • That's exactly what I do. I enjoy watching the keynotes and announcements. If I am in work when the happen I stay off Twitter etc until I get home and get a chance to watch the event. That probably seems sad but I enjoy being surprised. Sent from the iMore App
  • Not sad at all--the ability to delay gratification for the sake of greater enjoyment in the long run is a sign of character and maturity. That's my story and I'm stickin' to it. ;-)
  • While I agree with Jason's assessment to a certain extent, I don't think things have changed due to Apple's current position as a company nor due to the connected nature and increased communications amongst the masses. The internet was in full bloom during the ascendancy of Apple to what it is today, particularly when the first iPhone was released. In fact, the iPhone was pre-announced due to many of the exact reasons that Jason wrote about. No, I think things are different now because Steve Jobs is no longer leading Apple. This is not a "doom and gloom" response, nor a blind sentimentality for earlier times. This is more of a simple observation. Steve Jobs was an excellent storyteller for that kind of story. Those announcements were great not simply because of what was being announced but also due to who was doing the announcing. Take the Apple Watch for example. Whether we knew everything about it prior to its release or not, having a compelling story told by Apple executives and presented in a genuinely enthusiastic manner is what would have made that announcement "fun". At least to me. The current Apple is doing very well now. Tim Cook, the executive team and the rest of Apple is firing on all cylinders. I am looking forward to more great products. But without a master storyteller; someone with both a childish wonder for what they are talking about but also a seasoned veteran's perspective of the industry and world it is being announced into, the era of dramatic events is over. In fact, I would go as far to say that perhaps they should just stick to updating their website and cranking out some decent ads, as well as offering product profiles to journalist much like the current executive/company profiles being written about now. Having the current executive lineup tag-team another big announcement in the meandering, dry toast manner that things have been announced as of late is kind of boring to me. They are also a sad shell of what they once were. It is the presentation that matters, not so much the subject. That is what an announcement is. Knowledge of all the facts alone is simply a product brief or a spec sheet. Having the company walk you through why they thought of this and how it could fit into your life is what an "announcement" is.
  • Steve Jobs was a lunatic about keeping his products a secret. Remember what he did to BGR when they got the Iphone 4? That is what is missing from today's Apple. A fanatic in the lead. I also think this article is pretty funny. An Iphone hasnt made it release day without being leaked in 4 years. Now we come to the conclusion that the days of the big reveal are over? LOL.
  • On the surface this article simply states that Apple's size and importance essentially makes it impossible to keep secrets and the 'one last thing' age is over. Kinda sorta true. But underneath the surface is fanboy apologist-ism. Listen -- I've been Mac since there was a Mac, but I've got to tell you that Windows 10 doesn't suck. Neither do certain PC configs at half the price of Mac cousins. And though I'm not a Droid user I'm seeing catching up there as well. I've already bought two PCs instead of a Mac and an iPad. I'm closely eyeing the Zenfone 3 phones. My first Android maybes ever. What's wrong here? I can afford Macs and iPhones. Why am I looking at competition? Bored? Yes. BORED SILLY. Apple is taking its customers for granted. I was a recognized store employee way WAY back in the early days. I'm the LAST person who should be looking over at Windows and Android. The thing is Mac MAKES me look elsewhere. What made Mac wonderful is nearly gone at this point. The fanboy apologist will say "We're at a point where Apple can't invent new wheels anymore." Or as this article suggests, "How can Apple wow when secrets are impossible?" Both notions are misdirecting spin. Apple can WOW by fulfilling its own potential. It's way more interested in fulfilling its overflowing pockets. Remember when Apple was for the rest of us? Notice how that turned around? PCs and Android are for the rest of us now. Realistic spec and prices for the most part. Here's a list of what could WOW me back to drooling at Apple's doorsteps -- 1. The Apple TV. In a field of products going down in price, the iPinheads release a product that costs MORE than it's predecessor. For lame reasons. Guess who didn't buy one. No, go ahead, guess. I'd like to see a new improved ATV come in two flavors. Basic and el Cheapo for like $50 -- WOW -- 2. -- and a $299 version which doubles as a Mini PC. That's right. Your TV can become a Core M SSD Mac. Add in a wireless keyboard trackpad for $100. WOW (I know, Cook would price the unit at $500 and the keyboard/trackpad at $199, but that's the frickin' problem with Cook. Too Cookin' greedy!) 3. The entire line of Macs should have been SSD by now. Playing catch up like this is embarrassing. 4. The iCloud Homepage should be an iPortal ALREADY. A way to 'have a Mac' on a cheap PC. Apple Music, for instance, should be an App on that page. WOW. Messages should already be there so that you can buy a cheap PC but splurge on an iPhone. WOW. 5. Apple should be working with LibreOffice to offer a super polished free variant of the suite. The way Apple could make money off of it is iCloud storage integration. WOW 6. In general hardware prices need to drop or AppleCare becomes free for three years. WOW The way I see it Apple is in place to wonderous things. But it's gotten so cozy with taxing its base to build pricey stores. It's taking fans for granted while it builds some billion dollar campus. Screw Apple and it's campus. Hi. I'm a customer. Former employee. Your products and software have been abandoned. They're falling further and further behind. At higher and higher prices. I encourage people to abandon Apple at this point. Until Apple wakes up and realizes they should become the device maker for the rest of us.
  • Don't let the door hit you on the way out! If you don;t like what Apple's doing right now, that's fine. As you pointed out, there are other products out there. Personally? I still love Apple's stuff. I LOVE the iPad - it's my main computer and there's NOTHING else like it on the market. Yes, there are exciting things happening elsewhere, and yes you can still love Apple's stuff and be a part of what else is going on. Microsoft is doing some cool stuff, especially with Windows Holographic. Continuum is a cool concept (though implementation on the tablet side DOES blow - Windows 10 is a great OS but the GUI SUCKS on the tablet) - which is why I own a Surface Pro. In the end, I don't use Apple's stuff because it's cutting edge and has all the latest and greatest - I use it because it works for me. I'm not a single platform person so I don't "get bored" because there's always something cool going on, but when it comes to day-to-day and devices I rely on to carry out my computing needs, Apple provides what I need and want.
  • Hmm. Lots of semi-artful spin here. "If you don't like what Apple's doing right now, that's fine." This isn't about me. The question is if I'm alone in this. I'm not. About a year ago I walked into an Apple Store and a teeshirt dude approached me and said, "Hey... can I show you the new watch?" What a sad moment this was. When I worked in the store I never had to ask someone to look at anything. They'd ask me. I said, "No thanks." The poor guy was confused and asked, "Why not?" And I said, "It's ugly as bell*." So YES I don't like that Apple is doing that right now. But the problem is many people agree with me. "Yes, there are exciting things happening elsewhere, and yes you can still love Apple's stuff and be a part of what else is going on." I never said I couldn't be part of what else is going on. In fact my point was that Apple is so dated (yet pricey) it's forcing me to notice what else is going on. Since almost NOTHING is happening at Apple. Then you slip in this notion that I can still 'LOVE' what Apple is doing. Slyly obscuring my point they're doing next to nothing. That I don't love what they are doing. "In the end, I don't use Apple's stuff because it's cutting edge and has all the latest and greatest -" That obscures the fact that Apple charges top dollar. (Oh yeah!) I never said they should be using the latest and greatest. I'm saying either they should drop prices to match dated spec or up spec to justify some of their prices. The Core M MacBook is easily $300 too high for its spec. So either throw in free AppleCare (as I suggested) or drop the price. "I'm not a single platform person so I don't 'get bored' -- " You're inferring I got bored because I'm a single platform user. I got bored because Apple isn't Apple anymore. It routinely breaks things, fixes them, rebreaks them, fixes them. Why OH WHY is iTunes still an app Apple hasn't quite fixed yet? Perhaps they should stop focusing on million dollar glass staircases and put that money into people who want iTunes fixed? I'm hearing online tons of Apple fans VERY CONCERNED about the POS iOS 10 home screen. That it's a backwards step. That they're... wait for it... breaking it to maybe fix it later. Or not. How many YEARS have was gone with the 'next great iPhone' always being 'next year'? * if you can believe it this site censors the world bell that starts with an h
  • Emoji shows just aren't what they once were...
  • Apple lost its magic
  • Apple can show off a product that no one's seen when it's a new product category like the first iPhone and the Apple Watch. There were few, if any, parts in the Asian supply chain to ruin the element of surprise since Apple could announce months in advance of manufacturing and shipping. More than anything, Apple needs a showman. Craig comes close with his demoing prowess but demoing is just part of showmanship and I don't feel there's a great communicator anymore that is able to show off and explain the benefits in a way where you feel you suddenly need something that you didn't know you did previously.
  • That's not quite true. I hadn't seen any leaks about the watch. We were pretty sure it was coming but I'd call that launch a well kept secret. Sent from the iMore App
  • I fully agree with this article. The era of that surprise is kind of over especially for things like the iPhone or Samsung's top Galaxy line of phones because these devices have to be manufactured in very large numbers before their launch dates. I have a mind like a child though because I still enjoy very much watching the unveiling events, I think partly because there is a lot on these devices than just seeing their shells, and that is what excites me most when they tell everything about what the device actually does and how it does it. Sent from the iMore App
  • I was an Android user until one announcement, a total surprise to most, caught me off guard. I switched to iPhone instantly and still have one today, and suppose I will for years to come. I was "watching" the Apple keynote being blogged on a site because I was about to leave the house. Was watching on a Galaxy S2. I then saw the slide-- 64-bit processor. I actually was "wowed" when they said that. I left Android behind. There was no question and no doubt. It was fun being surprised and so stunned. September 2013. I think they could surprise again some day. Maybe more with the announcement ahead of time to avoid leaks. Regardless, even the small incremental upgrades lead to products, software and hardware, that continue to amaze me today. The amazement might come in smaller sizes, but, it still amazes me just as much.
  • Really great article! For me, I don't care about an epic reveal as long as the product is epic. You can put it in a spinner for all I care as long as it has and does everything I need it to. Sent from the iMore App