By Jason Snell
March 31, 2020 2:02 PM PT
A Quick Trip to the Windy City
We held off on this issue of the Six Colors Magazine once Apple announced it was holding an event in Chicago on March 27. Who knows—that event might’ve changed everything. It didn’t, but it changed enough that it was worth waiting.
I’m still processing the event and figuring out how I want to write about it, and I’ve also got a $329 sixth-generation iPad here that I need to review. I will say this: As much as it was a pain for me to fly halfway across the country and spend about 36 hours away from home in order to cover an Apple event, I kind of like the fact that Apple chose to do something different. Holding an event at a working school (albeit during Spring Break) allowed the company to avoid the high expectations that might come with a summons to the Steve Jobs Theater. (One of these days they’ll do a minor event at SJT, and we’ll see how people handle it. It can’t just be used for iPhone events, can it?)
Every Apple event is about storytelling, because that’s what marketing is: weaving products into a narrative. People enjoy stories. It’s wired into us. The tech industry used to drop a bunch of specs on people and walk away, expecting them to be impressed by the sheer force of the numbers. Steve Jobs changed the product-unveil event forever in part because he knew that every single product launch was a story that needed to be told.
Steve Jobs didn’t invent marketing. This is stuff right out of the Don Draper playbook. But the tech industry had largely lost the plot. It could be that Jobs’s single greatest ability was that he could place himself on the outside of a product looking in, even during the earliest development of that product. When you’re on the inside of making something—whether it’s an iPod or a novel—it’s very hard to see the forest for the trees. Jobs saw many possible forests, knew the one he liked best, and could drive people toward it.
Today’s Apple uses the Jobs playbook, because it’s a culture created and molded by Jobs. A new $329 iPad with somewhat upgraded specs is not enough of a product to merit an entire media event. But that’s not what Apple did in Chicago. It wrapped upgrades to its services, policies, and software, as well as a few deals with partners, around that new iPad. It told a story about what an innovator it is in education, at a time when the company’s market share in education has dropped to third place behind Windows and the wave of cheap Chromebooks that are swamping schools.
Will it work? Depends on what you think the goal was. I don’t think Apple’s going to reverse Google’s momentum in education this easily, but I do think Apple positioned itself as the company that’s innovating in education, with more creative and human approaches to learning than the Chromebook’s “browser, docs, and spreadsheets” nuts and bolts. When you’re charging more for your products than the competition, you have to convince the buyers that you are also providing more value. Apple’s pitch was strong in that respect, and I think it will keep them in the conversation.
I’m not one of those people who believes that the right thing for Apple to do was cut the price of the iPad so it competes directly with Chromebooks. That’s the same rotten argument that people have been making about Apple for years—that it should slash its profit margins and create lower-quality products so that it can win the market-share game. Apple doesn’t play the market share game, it plays the profit game. It doesn’t need to beat Chromebooks in the education market—but it does need to have an offering that allows it to take a profitable chunk of the market while making everyone feel good that Apple’s trying to reinvent education with its amazing hardware and software.
The Chicago event was all about that. For the rest of us who are not in education, the big takeaway from the event is that there’s a pretty capable iPad with Apple Pencil support available for $329. I assume an iPad Pro update is in the offing for later this year, and presumably those new models will add all sorts of whizzy features to appeal to the likes of me. But for a lot of people, the new sixth-generation iPad will be more than enough. Apple said that the fifth-generation iPad was Apple’s best-selling iPad, and the sixth-generation model looks to be even more successful.