Sep 15

Apple’s pre-holiday festival of stuff: afterthoughts

Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 12.40.38 AMThe pre-holiday Apple event was only part of a much larger drama that’s been played out many times before.

First came the rumors. Then came leaks with substance. Then came the presentation — less surprising because of the leaks — which disappointed Wall Street and dropped the AAPL stock price. Then came a frenzy of articles pro and con, followed by a day-after bump in AAPL stock when Wall Street (momentarily) came to its senses.

What else could there possibly be to talk about? I’m sure we can think of something…

Adjective Overload

A frequent complaint of Apple event critics is the excessive use of hyperbole. Hard to argue this. Then again, when one unveils brand-new products, hyper-adjectives are just too tempting for mortal men. That’s how we humans show enthusiasm.

And guess what. Steve Jobs was famous for using exactly the same words — in the same amazing, incredible, magical quantity. The difference? Today’s Apple presenters are not Steve Jobs. Consciously or subconsciously, it’s hard to avoid the comparison.

Steve had a natural style, the legitimacy of being a founder, and a world-class distortion field. A good actor could read his scripts word for word, and they wouldn’t have the same effect. No getting around it, the master’s hand is missed.

It’s complicated

I won’t complain about Jeff Williams’ Apple Watch presentation (though he wasn’t exactly Mr. Excitement). Instead, I’d like to dwell on one of the words he used in describing new Watch features: complications.

This word has been part of the Apple Watch vocabulary from the start. Apple didn’t invent it — the watch industry has long referred to any information that appears in addition to the clock face (such as the date) as a complication. Clearly, complications are a hugely important thing in Apple Watch.

However, I continue to wonder why Apple embraced this word, given that it has painstakingly built a reputation on making things easy to use. The watch industry might use the word, but Apple hasn’t signed a treaty to behave like other watch makers. In fact, it set out to be something entirely different.

The word complication just sounds antithetical to everything Apple stands for. I get a little chill every time I hear it.

Headlines by formula

iPad Pro was introduced as “the biggest news in iPad since iPad.” A perfectly likable line — even if it seems to have been written by the author of “If it isn’t an iPhone, it isn’t an iPhone.”

Apple Pencil

Apple chose the word pencil over pen, yet the presentation included references to choosing different inks and brush strokes. Not complaining, mind you. It’s still a cool name.

More fun was watching the day-after critics looking foolish en masse, playing back the fact that Steve Jobs had nastily shut down any thought of using a stylus. Somehow it didn’t register that he was talking about the very first iPhone, and how awkward it would be with a stylus. That remains true. A pro tool designed for illustration and retouching is a very different animal.

Videos by formula

Apple’s video style has been satirized for years — mostly in unfunny ways, and occasionally in hilarious ways. The reason, of course, is that Apple has churned out videos in precisely the same style for at least a decade. Jony Ive is distinctively articulate, but now even his voice sounds a bit like satire. What a fun thing it would be to see something different.

Enough already

Apple clings to the word iSight in describing the camera in iPhone and other products — for no apparent reason. When I refer to the iPhone camera in conversation, I use the word camera. I know that’s shocking, but I have a feeling I’m not alone. In fact, I’ve never, ever heard anyone refer to it as an iSight camera. On a beautifully simple device, that name seems like … a complication.

Apple TV

One new speaker I liked was Jen Folse from the Apple TV team. She was likable and added some sorely needed youthful enthusiasm.

I also liked the re-imagined Apple TV. Juicing it up with power, a real OS and its own App Store turns it into a serious platform.  Others may have tried similar things, but they don’t have the ecosystem and audience that Apple commands. I look forward to seeing what developers and content providers do with it.

Most advanced iPhones ever

If I had the time or energy, I’d revisit every iPhone intro (and Mac intros as well) to find out how many times the new version is introduced in exactly this way. If the newest iPhone ever wasn’t the most advanced iPhone ever, we would truly be entering an age of darkness where all hope is lost.

Least advanced naming ever

Through its iPhone naming, Apple has now successfully taught the world to believe that the real advances happen only every other year. The S-years are the off-years, with only minor improvements offered.

We all know this does not reflect the truth. Siri, for example, arrived in the 4S, and is arguably one of the most important new features in iPhone history. In other years, S-models introduced Touch ID and 64-bit processing, both of which were huge.

I’ve never understood Apple’s desire to shoot itself in the foot this way. Leading up to this event, many articles reminded readers to temper their expectations due to the fact that this is an S-year. Unintentionally, through its naming, Apple has actually trained customers and journalists to latch onto this perception.

Further, “S” is one of the alphabet’s softest, most lisp-inducing letters. It makes a product name more difficult to pronounce. This year, it gets worse. “iPhone 6S Plus” has three s-sounds in a row. Not ideal.

That’s a pretty flimsy argument, Ken. Especially when S-year iPhone sales are through the roof. Embrace the S! Well, no argument here about iPhone sales. But I’ve never heard a marketer refuse an opportunity to make a great thing even greater. I don’t understand what positive effect Apple achieves by going the S-route — but the negatives are there for all to see.

The marketing theme for the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus — The only thing that’s changed is everything — seems designed to counter the popular perception that S-years are off-years. John Gruber likes the new commercial and theme line, saying: “It head-on addresses the knee-jerk criticism that the 6S/Plus look like last year’s 6/Plus by showing people using all the new features, all of which are pretty cool.”

Well … Apple wouldn’t have to address the knee-jerk criticism if it didn’t create this “off-year” perception with its choice of names. In this case, it is certainly reaping what it has sown.

Here’s to next year’s iPhone 7 —and hopefully, the iPhone 8 that will follow.

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  • J.C. Webber III

    I believe they use the ‘S’ designator because the newer phone is keeping it’s predicesor’s body style. No change in form factor.

  • Jules Hobbes

    Interesting view of the letter ‘S’ as being soft. As far as cars are concerned, the S-version usually represents the ‘S’tronger, more powerful model. Similarly with cameras, like Nikon D4s. And I am sure there are many more examples where the letter ‘S’ evokes an emotion like ‘strong’ or ‘super’.

  • hannahjs

    Ken, you didn’t mention the sheer volume of new stuff crammed into two hours, abandoning any more media events this year. Nor did you comment on Apple’s reversion to style after a haphazard WWDC 2015 (I still think the Music segment was shoehorned in after TV was dropped at the last minute).

  • WFA67

    Your comments make sense to me. I especially appreciate the riff on the letter “s.” A fine and, I think, practical sensibility.

    “The future of TV is apps.” This is really promising: Apple offers an irresistible TV delivery experience, leaving providers and market forces to hammer out the messy content & packaging deals. Apple keeps its hands clean. Great opportunities for customization of a viewer’s video experience. (Hey, Comcast. You might even score with an icon on the Apple TV screen and an à la carte/you-choose-’em package.) It appears, too, that anyone can play on this field. Sweet.

    Avoiding making enemies while building relationships. Seems to me to be a great business strategy. Thank you, Tim.

  • jameskatt

    Apple uses the word Complications because it is the correct and exact term used by the watch industry. Apple highly respects the watch industry and vice versa.

  • ksegall

    Honestly, I’ve never heard of the letter “s” being some kind of cross-industry symbol of speed. Perhaps I’ve just lived a sheltered life. However, if Apple’s “s” had any meaning, one would think Apple might explain it one day, and so far they’ve been silent.

    That said, the bigger point of my article is that iPhone’s every-other-year S-naming has trained people to expect less in an S-year. Seems like a pretty weak marketing idea for such a competitive industry.

  • ksegall

    Hey, a guy can only shoehorn so much into a blog post. But yeah, the show was jam-packed. I’m not so sure it was a mistake though, because if they split it into two shows, one or both of the resulting shows might have been a bit anemic. I guess this was their judgment call.

    However, some streamlining sure would have helped. Structuring a great show was one of Steve Jobs’ great talents. He had an instinct for it. Clearly Tim & team haven’t yet mastered the art.

  • ksegall

    That’s certainly the public perception. I think it’s also a marketing handicap for Apple, as it teaches people to believe that the S-years bring only incremental improvements. (Even though that’s far from the truth.)

    I keep wondering what advantage Apple sees in this naming system. From what I can tell, it only fortifies the misconception.

  • immovableobject

    Adding an additional feature to a mechanical watch requires extra gears, dials, and other parts be incorporated making the design and physical construction of the watch literally complicated. As more complications are incorporated, the difficulty of manufacture becomes ever more challenging. The result is that watches with many complications are often rare and expensive.

    In contrast, many of the additional features of a solid state smart watch (beyond basic time display) are only a matter of software programming. I can see how using the word complications in this context seems anachronistic and pretentious. Downloading an extra app for the Apple watch doesn’t actually make it more complicated.

  • Starman_Andromeda

    This is, without a doubt, one of the most astute tech pieces on Apple that I’ve read in years. I shook my head over Apple’s first use of the term “complications”; then thought it was a cool term to learn. But you’ve brought it home that it’s a major mistake– the regular consumer hears it and is confused. “Why would I buy a watch that has complications?”

    You’re so right. The “s” nomenclature being used is also D-U-M-B. The camera upgrade, the introduction of Force Touch, the new processor add up to a major improvement. It’s not just that the s reduces the pizzazz, but that it then raises expectations for the next one! I mean the iPhone 7 better have a foldable screen, built in Pico projector, zoomable optical camera lens, and built-in quiche maker or it won’t be considered a real upgrade!

  • Starman_Andromeda

    James, I agree with that being the reason they did it. But they could have gone one better– explaining that the watch industry calls them “complications” and for good reason, but that we here at Apple have made them “simplifications”! To simplify your life; simplify your phone use; simplify your staying in touch with the news, and in touch with family and friends.

    Now, as Jobs would say “It’s that simple!”

  • Starman_Andromeda

    It’s also easier to structure a show when it features 1 person!

    Did you see the recent analyses of Apple’s keynotes by a,punt of time spent by different people on stage? In the Jobs era, it was Steve, Steve, and more Steve. In the Cook era, it’s a team, with a variety of players. Harder to work out.

    One also wonders whether Forestall didn’t play a major role in orchestrating the events–without him, it’s taking some time.

    However, we’re wrong about these keynotes anyway. Go back to last year or the one before and you’ll find quite smooth presentations, excellent transitions, good humor, and solidly done activities. WWDC was a glitch, an exception, and this fall was plagued by too much. I’ll bet we could find Jobs events that were over crammed or too long, too!

  • Starman_Andromeda

    Agree 100% with you, Ken.

  • dr.no

    One thing needs mentioning of change for worse is
    generic names.

    If you search “Passbook” on twitter, you get 90% Apple product.
    “Wallet” will never achieve that.
    Newstand vs News.

    examples are just too numerous.

    Metal, Swift, Pencil, Watch, Pay.
    Can no longer search and get correct buzz or info.

  • Peet

    I think this keynote were one of the best yet in the Tim era. As I sat there watching I remembered something Steve mentioned in his bio, if I’m correct? “A great leader can demo ” or something like that. Or maybe it was you Ken who mentioned it in your book? Whatever, if Tim made a demo it could fire upp the hole event. I’m still waiting for that magic moment to happen.

    Loved your book Ken. Thanks. :)

  • iPhone’s users have a two years replacement cycle.
    Apple wants to sustain users’ perception that their products keep value in time.
    Software upgrades support older models, apple store sells older models, apps maintain compatibility with older models.
    Every pundit that evaluates a new model usually says that it is a no brainer for previous years model owners to upgrade, while owners of the current model can wait another year without loosing too much features and this is true almost for every apple products.

    It all gives more value to the latest model since it is made for long term use and will not become garbage in six months.
    So Apple’s goal is not to underline that this year model is a huge upgrade from previous ones and that current models should be thrown out by users.
    Apple gains more value making “little” improvements every years than big leaps, so the s name is a gently way to say don’t be afraid to current iphones owners, their phones are still cool it is only an s upgrade, keep your two years cycle.
    Could this change? With the new monthly payments policy they are aiming at one year replacement (the two year cycle has been imposed by carriers) and if the cycle change so will names.

  • ksegall

    I’ve heard a similar rationale before about the two-year replacement cycle. However, my opinion is that whatever positive things might from the S naming are more than outweighed by the negatives.

    For starters, new people coming into the market during an S year might just wait for the real improvements coming the next year. And Apple’s competitors are out there unveiling a brand-new, state-of-the-art phone every year, compared to what people believe are Apple’s modest improvements.

    It’s just hard to imagine that Apple’s strategy is to announce “little” improvements every other year so as to make current owners feel better. Especially now, when they’re offering a monthly payment plan that makes it possible to get a new phone every year.

    Apple’s S naming now forces them to run advertising that counters the perception they’ve created themselves — that it doesn’t look like the 6S has big improvements, but it really does. That’s a big and unnecessary burden to be putting on your ads.

  • Doug Trace

    One thing that seems to have gone largely unnoticed by the media is that Phil Shiller was more on point in this keynote than any other in recent memory. He was so warmly received by the audience (I speculate that it’s because he is a lasting public connection to Steve Jobs) and his presentation was very relaxed and fluid. In years past he usually seemed a bit halted and stiff which always came off more comedic than anything else. Not this year though. Kudos to Phil.

  • I never thought of this before reading the article, but maybe in the future a key to Apple’s being able to market a phone that looks the same on the outside but is way different on the inside is that while Apple’s phones have superior build quality using superior materials, all the industry “borrowing” by others is making the value (as in, priority in a purchase decision) about a device’s power and capabilities and less how it looks on the outside.

  • in simpler terms, the value of going the S-route is to associate the iPhone “version” with the physical parameters of the device.

  • I always find Phil entertaining. And a good sport. Does anyone remember when the first iBooks (“tangerine toilet seats”) came out and one of the biggest selling points was the fact that it had WIRELESS CONNECTIVITY.

    Apple introduced “AirPort” with the iBook, and to show how “amazing” it was, they hooked up a USB-connected accelerometer to the iBook (giving credit to the lab/science-learning company that makes these kinds of “sensors”), and had Phil holding onto an iBook + accelerometer and jump 30 ft down just to show a real-time graph on the iBooks’ screen showing his acceleration.

    I <3 Phil.

  • agreed. Apple could have said a single sentence prefacing the first mention of the word “complication” and that would change things greatly.

  • “Steve had a natural style, the legitimacy of being a founder, and a world-class distortion field.”

    SJ had a certain something in spades, that’s for sure.

    IMVHO, I think the Apple executive who most closely resembles this – albeit in a very, very different way – is Craig Federighi. His enthusiasm and charisma is authentic.

    “Further, “S” is one of the alphabet’s softest, most lisp-inducing letters.”

    I’ve always tied the meaning behind Apple’s use of this letter to the automotive industry, where “S” works quite well to signal that a given model is, let’s say, “one louder”.