How Apple’s Launch Event Distorted Reality — Again
CUPERTINO, California — Abandon objectivity, all ye who enter an Apple product launch event.
“Reality distortion field” is a phrase long associated with this company, and with good reason. It goes back to 1981, when Apple manager Bud Tribble first used it to describe Steve Jobs’ absolute unshakeable certainty that the Macintosh computer was going to ship in 1982. (In fact, it wasn’t ready until 1984.)
Tribble’s phrase was soon applied to Jobs’ entire approach to business — a testament to his leadership skills, his ice-cold charisma and most especially, to his on-stage speeches. That stagecraft really kicked up a notch when Jobs returned to the company in 1997, and Apple product launches instantly went from snoozefests to rousing rallies that excited and energized attendees, and pushed all questions or concerns to one side.
The products being launched may have been insanely great. But the reality distortion field was insanely greater.
Fast forward to Tuesday’s launch of the iPhone 6, Apple Pay and the Apple Watch. If there were any doubts that CEO Tim Cook is as much a master of the reality distortion field as his predecessor was, they have been swept aside by this exquisitely crafted show. (Not for nothing was this the event where Cook revived Jobs’ famous tagline “one more thing” after years of refusing to use it.)
Consider what Cook and company didn’t talk about. Not one word about the iCloud hacking that left celebrity nude photos exposed across the Internet — the main context in which Apple was discussed last week. Consider all the crucial things we still don’t know about the Apple Watch: how much the various models will cost, how long a battery life it has, how on Earth you’ll be able to stop someone else from buying stuff with it, since it uses Apple Pay and doesn’t seem to require any verification that it’s you.
Consider that the watch will not be ready until after the holiday season — normally a major faux pas in retail.
Consider that the world was encouraged to watch the event’s live stream, which then proceeded to go dead multiple times for many viewers. (For some, Cook’s words were incomprehensible, covered by a concurrent stream of Chinese translation.)
Any other tech company would be pilloried mercilessly for these kinds of mistakes. But Apple? We give it a pass, we in the press, in the media, in the blogosphere (whatever you want to call it — there isn’t much difference these days, certainly not when it comes to Apple).
We give it a pass partly because we’re dazzled by the stagecraft; partly because we’re all amped up and hoping for brilliance; partly because of a strange kind of peer pressure. Apple PR, the same people who rarely return our calls, have suddenly become our best friends, bestowing friendly attention and friendlier hugs. Apple employees pack the event and cheer wildly at all the appropriate moments (today’s Apple contingent took up the first 20 rows.)
It’s a celebratory atmosphere, and it seems churlish to speak or even think ill at a celebration.
We’re also used to the fact that Apple products, software or hardware, invariably respond to all criticism with upgrades — they just do so quietly, some months hence, in the next version, without acknowledging there was ever a problem.
Mostly we give Apple a pass because we love the company. Fundamentally, we believe Cook when he says he’s trying to make the world better (his favorite word). For all its wealth, Apple is leaving money on the table because it wants to get products right before it launches them. That’s rare, and we respect that.
Trouble is, Apple doesn’t always trust our ability to come to that conclusion on our own. Throughout the day, we were herded in neat rows through narrow doors — once into the theater, once into the vast hands-on area constructed outside the theater. Everything we saw and did was stage-managed. Concepts that could be considered creepy in some contexts (for example, sending your heartbeat to someone else’s Apple Watch) were placed in contexts that made them fun and friendly. Imperfections were ironed out.
No questioning, no doubt, was allowed to spoil this perfect day.
For example: Apple employees wore working Apple Watches; media attendees were handed demo watches that played on a loop. There was a moment when I had trouble unhooking the rather too-secure clasp on my particular Apple Watch strap. I happened to be having this problem on camera. Immediately, Apple reps pounced and told us our demo time was up — though we had only just begun filming.
This is why I love and hate Apple launch day in equal measure. I’m an unabashed fanboy of Apple products; I’m also an unabashed fanboy of free-thinking and journalistic inquiry. I love the excitement and adrenaline rush of these events and the camaraderie of the press corps; I love getting the news out on the latest and greatest releases from this supremely design-minded hit factory of a company. But I hate the groupthink, and the way we all act like stenographers in the presence of Apple news.
One day, perhaps, the company will feel secure enough in itself that this measure of extreme control becomes unnecessary. Until then, we’d better get used to living in the reality distortion field.
Image: Mashable/Bob Al-Greene
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