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By Six Colors Staff

Apple’s Town Hall: A look back

By Jason Snell and Stephen Hackett

Tim Cook said goodbye to Town Hall on March 21.

Located at 4 Infinite Loop on Apple’s main campus, the Town Hall conference center was probably designed more for in-company meetings than for major events covered by worldwide media. And yet on numerous occasions over the years, it’s been exactly that.

The March 21 event in Town Hall could very well be the last hurrah for the old 300-seat venue, given that Apple is constructing a 1,000-seat auditorium in its new campus, due to open next year. Before it goes, here’s a look back at key public events in Town Hall, starting in late 2001.

The iPod

October 23, 2001: Rumors abounded that Apple was going to enter the music player business in advance of this event, which took place in the shadow of 9/11. Steve Jobs pulled the original iPod and its 1,000 songs out of his pocket, a compact MP3 jukebox (with iTunes integration) the likes of which the world hadn’t seen before.

In a move that would be unheard of today, every member of the press attending the session walked away with a beta version of the iPod. (In fact, many members of the press discovered that attempting to upgrade their demo iPods’ firmware to the first released iPod firmware update would accidentally brick the device. Apple PR made sure to swap these beta units out for real ones when the product shipped.)

To demonstrate the iPod’s features as a music player without requiring the less savvy members of the media to rip their own CDs and transfer them to the iPod, the players given to the press were pre-loaded with the contents of a few albums. To stave off accusations that the iPod was a machine built around music piracy, members of the press also received a bag containing more than a half-dozen CDs taped together in a cube, representing the albums that were pre-loaded onto the iPod.—J.S.

Xserve

May 14, 2002: In May 2002, Steve Jobs led a 90-minute press briefing about Apple’s “first real server” product: the Xserve.

Jobs argued that while Mac was in most Fortune 500 companies, Apple was entering the enterprise server market “very humbly,” learning as they went. The Xserve was a 1U, rack-mounted G4 system designed to be powerful and flexible. Running the UNIX-based OS X Server, the software offered a wide range of services for education and business customers. A companion product — the Xserve RAID — gave users a whopping 1.68 TB in a 3U space.

The event includes a very early Tim Cook appearance, in which Apple’s future CEO discusses the company’s strategy for sales and support of the Xserve. It closed with a Q&A with the audience, a practice that Apple has largely stopped. (Though it did come back, with a vengeance, in the wake of “Antennagate.”)—S.H.

iPod Hi-Fi

February 28, 2006: The entrance to Town Hall is on the back side of the campus, at 4 Infinite Loop. The space in front of the theater is very small, and it and the small Piano Bar space across the hall (often used for hands-on demonstrations) are generally all members of the press ever see. But in 2006, Apple did something different to promote its latest release, the iPod Hi-Fi speaker system. Upstairs from the Town Hall entrance, Apple outfitted multiple rooms as if they were movie sets, providing examples of Apple technologies in “real-world” scenarios. Picture a “dorm room” outfitted with Apple’s expensive and ill-fated competitor to the Bose SoundDock. It was a curious decision, and while Apple frequently goes overboard with its product demonstration areas, there’s never been something like those demo rooms again.

As for the event itself, even the great showman Steve Jobs couldn’t muster up a lot of enthusiasm, damning the introduced products1 with faint praise when he referred to them as “medium scale.” He did suggest that many Apple customers would install multiple iPod Hi-Fi units in their houses, when in fact the product was one of the bigger sales flops of the Jobs era.—J.S.

Aluminum iMac

August 7, 2007: The switch to aluminium enclosures is one of those changes to the Mac line that instantly made the previous product look really old. Introduced in Town Hall just a few weeks after the original iPhone shipped, the iMac got a makeover, trading in a plastic case for a thinner metal one, with a glass cover over the displays.

After praising the design of the all-in-one computer, Jobs got down to the business of refreshing the iMac. Moving to aluminum gave the iMac a more professional look, while the black border of the coverglass was a call right back to the iPhone. FireWire 800 showed up for the first time on the iMac with this revision, making it a more attractive option for power users.

A more humble product made its first appearance at this event: the aluminum keyboard, which Apple just replaced with the Magic Keyboard recently. The keyboard’s design didn’t change all that much, really speaking to how timeless the design introduced here proved to be. The Retina iMacs are also cut from the same cloth as the Mid-2007 version.—S.H.

Apple-watchers who were around at the time may also remember this event as the one that featured a newspaper reporter asking Steve Jobs about why Apple didn’t put stickers on its laptops, generating a kerfuffle that seems silly in hindsight and gave both Steve Jobs and Phil Schiller the opportunity to distill Apple’s product philosophy down into a couple of paragraphs.—J.S.

iPhone SDK Roadmap

March 6, 2008: This event, only eight months after the release of the iPhone, showed Apple shifting gears from introducing its groundbreaking device to adding new features that would shoot it into the stratosphere. The invitation for the event was an image of a road map.

The concept of “iOS” didn’t exist yet, but Steve Jobs, Phil Schiller, and Scott Forstall rolled out what would be the first update to “the iPhone software.” Schiller announced a bunch of enterprise features, including support for Microsoft Exchange. Forstall had the bigger announcement: The ability for third-party developers to finally write apps for the iPhone. This was the starting gun for the rush to the App Store, and hundreds (if not thousands) of developers immediately began working on their first iPhone apps.—J.S.

Unibody MacBook and MacBook Pro

October 14, 2008: When Apple introduced the original MacBook Pro, it was more or less a PowerBook G4 with an Intel chipset inside. From a design perspective, not much changed until this event, when Apple unveiled a redesigned MacBook Pro, built with the company’s unibody architecture.

Jony Ive made a rare public appearance to walk the press (and public) through this design change. He explained that while the outgoing notebook’s chassis was made up of many components, the unibody construction method allowed Apple to build much stronger, much simpler notebooks. Machines more or less carved a notebook’s chassis out of a single block of aluminum. This method had been used to build the original MacBook Air, and allowed the MacBook Pro to become thinner and lighter as well.

To show just how rigid the new component was, Apple passed out examples of the unibody part, allowing press members to examine them. In watching the video, I can’t help but chuckle at Jobs’ impatience as those in the audience handled the examples.—S.H.

iPhone OS 3 Preview

March 17, 2009: With Steve Jobs on leave, longtime Apple employee Greg Joswiak led this event, joined by Scott Forstall to talk about the third major update to the iPhone’s software, “iPhone OS 3.” The biggest highlights in this update were support for copy and paste, Find My iPhone, and app control over external hardware via the Dock Connector.

But for me, the most memorable moment took place during the introduction of push notifications, in which an ESPN representative showed a score alert appearing on the iPhone accompanied by a custom sound—the SportsCenter theme song. The entire audience burst into laughter and applause. It was the sound of a whole new era for the iPhone.—J.S.

iPhone OS 4 Preview

April 8, 2010: Just a few days after the original iPad hit store shelves, Steve Jobs and Scott Forstall (who was the VP of iPhone software at the time) took the wraps off of iPhone OS 4, a huge update to Apple’s mobile operating system.

Most notably, iPhone OS 4 added multitasking, breaking the one-at-a-time model iPhone users were used to up until this point. In the name of battery savings, multitasking wasn’t a free-for-all. Apple allowed seven very specific ways to background an app; if an app couldn’t legitimately claim any of the rights Apple allowed, it wouldn’t be able to run in the background.

Beyond multitasking, iPhone OS 4 added a myriad of other features taken for granted now, including home-screen folders, a unified Inbox in Mail.app, the iBookstore for iPhone and iPod touch users and more.

I had switched to Android about a month before this event, and remembered regretting my choice when I saw what Apple was up to with their OS. In many ways, iPhone OS 4 was the beginning of the modern era of iPhone and iPad software. It’s hard to remember a time when returning to the homescreen would mean audio would stop or a data transfer would be paused.—S.H.

Antennagate press conference

Antennagate

July 16, 2010: This is, without a doubt, the most unusual Apple event ever. A hurriedly called press conference in the wake of snowballing press reports of antenna problems in the iPhone 4 (kicked off by a report by Gizmodo, the blog that had been battling with Apple since it bought a stolen iPhone 4 prototype months before), Steve Jobs rushed back from a family vacation to present to a small collection of press who could get to Cupertino on a Friday with a couple of days’ notice. The event began with the playing of Jonathan Mann’s iPhone Antenna song, the contents of which take some shots at Gizmodo and provide a more fiesty tone (“if you don’t like it, bring it back”) that perhaps Apple wasn’t comfortable saying itself.

Then Jobs appeared from stage left, looking like someone who desperately didn’t want to be there, indicating that this was a press conference and that he’d be happy to answer questions after a “short 15 minute presentation” that ended up lasting a half an hour. After that, Jobs was joined on stage by Phil Schiller and Tim Cook, all of them perched on stools to answer questions from the press in attendance.

Once the event ended, about a dozen members of the press were ushered across the street by Apple PR to Apple’s wireless testing lab. It was a brilliant move, because it both served as a diversion—how many stories would now be about a rare peek inside Apple’s top-secret testing areas, not just about Antennagate?—and as a refutation of the suggestion that Apple doesn’t do testing on its iPhone antennas and completely missed the problem uncovered by Gizmodo.—J.S.

Back to the Mac

October 20, 2010: “What if a MacBook and an iPad hooked up?” The answer to this unlikely question (posed by Steve Jobs!) was the next-generation 13- and 11-inch MacBook Air. After a whole lot of time devoted to new iPhones and the launch of the iPad, this event was billed as “Back to the Mac”, which had a double meaning: Not only was it Apple bringing its attention back to the Mac, but it was a story of bringing features and functionality from the iPhone and iPad back to the Mac platform.

In some ways, this presentation also offered a preview of Apple events to come: Though Jobs appeared throughout the event, he said that the intimate setting of Town Hall provided an opportunity to get some other people on stage… and then introduced Tim Cook. Cook was followed by, among others, iMovie creator Randy Ubillos (who previewed a radical new version of iMovie) and a somewhat shaky Craig Federighi, who had not yet grown into the more seasoned stage performer we know today. The new version of OS X, Lion, was announced and demoed. Jobs returned at the end to present the progeny of the iPad and MacBook Pro, and announced that the new MacBook Airs were shipping immediately. Even more notably, all the journalists in attendance got to walk away with a Macbook Air review unit, which is the only time I can recall that ever happening.—J.S.

iPhone 4S

October 4, 2011: A sad event that got sadder in hindsight. The first Apple event to take place after Steve Jobs stepped down as CEO due to his failing health, everyone at the event (on stage and off) sensed his absence. A chair in the front row was left empty, presumably in his honor. The event itself featured the introduction of the iPhone 4S, iCloud, iOS 5, and Siri, and was Cook’s first event since being named CEO.

It began with a tribute to Town Hall itself. “Town Hall has quite a history at Apple,” Cook said. “Just 10 years ago, we launched the original iPod here, and it went on to revolutionize the way we listened to music. And just one year ago, we launched the new MacBook Air, which has fundamentally changed how people think about notebook computers.”

The day after the event, Steve Jobs died. That’s why I always remember this event with sadness, and the product it focused on—the iPhone 4S—as being the one “For Steve.”—J.S.

iPhone 5S & 5C

September 10, 2013: The iPhone 5C was a radical break from Apple’s previous strategy when it came to selling lower-cost phones. While it was really just an iPhone 5 in a fun new “unapologetically plastic” case and an updated FaceTime camera, the 5C was designed to inject some excitement in the middle of the product line. Launched with bright-and-colorful iOS 7, Apple harped that it was the only company that could make a device that blended software and hardware so seamlessly.

If the 5C was about fun, the 5S was Apple flexing its technology muscles. The first mobile phone to ship with a 64-bit processor, the 5S raised the bar for what many thought was possible in such a small form factor. If that wasn’t enough, Touch ID made its debut on the 5S, allowing users to unlock their phone and make purchases with their fingerprint. The M7 motion co-processor unlocked a new world of health and fitness functionality.

While the 5C seemingly never sold in the numbers Apple hoped, I still love the personality the phone had. Of course, the 5S is the real winner of this packed event, laying the groundwork for the technology in the iPhones we carry today.—S.H.

5K iMac & iPad Air 2

October 16, 2014: The most recent event at Town Hall was back in 2014, when Apple announced updates to the iPad and iMac lines. This event happened just a month after the huge launch of the iPhone 6 and announcement of the Apple Watch at Cupertino’s very large Flint Center auditorium. This event was almost an addendum to that one. Craig Federighi walked through some iOS 8 updates, including a public beta for iCloud Photo Library and announced the availability of OS X Yosemite later the same day.

On the hardware side, this event is another where Apple showed off its engineering power. While 2013’s iPad Air was thin as a pencil, that was no longer good enough. The Air 2 was 18% thinner and packed in an all-new chipset, the A8X. A year and a half later, this tablet still feels more than capable in our Slide Over and Split Screen world.

2014 was the 30th anniversary of the original Macintosh, and Apple used the occasion to launch a radically-better 27-inch iMac. Equipped with the largest Retina display to date, the iMac with 5K Retina display was an engineering tour-de-force. Packing 14.7 million pixels into a desktop computer required a custom timing controller, an oddly-nerdy detail to get so much keynote time. The result of all this work is a new class of desktop computers. This computer attracted many users away from their notebooks, including one Mr. Jason Snell.—S.H.

Video

Thanks to Stephen Hackett of 512 Pixels for collaborating on this story and creating this video:


  1. In addition to the iPod Hi-Fi, a new Intel-based Mac mini and leather iPod cases were on display. ↩

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