Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

This Week's Sponsor

Unite 5 - Turn Web Apps into Supercharged macOS apps

By Jason Snell

Tea and scones in Cupertino: The “Loop You In” Apple event

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.

When Apple wants to throw a big coming-out party for a product, it does it in style, renting out the Yerba Buena theater, or Moscone West, or the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, or the Flint Center, or the California Theater.

When it doesn’t, it holds an event in the tiny Town Hall venue. Monday was one of those. When Stephen Hackett and I recapped Town Hall’s history, I was struck by something Steve Jobs said at an event in 2006: he introduced the event by saying the products on display would be “medium scale.” Talk about setting expectations.

Monday’s event wasn’t quite that—a new iPhone of any kind and a new flagship iPad certainly deserve a bit more credit—but it was still a Town Hall event. A cozy get-together, not a blow-out rager.

Setting the tone

Tim Cook tackles Apple’s fight with the FBI.

The first portion of many Apple product announcements is devoted to corporate updates, retail stores opened and iPhones sold and the like. For this presentation, Apple went in a different direction—as Dan Moren put it so well, it focused on big-picture issues.

I admit, I thought Tim Cook would toss off a line about the FBI’s case against Apple—since deferred—and move on to other things. Instead, Cook addressed the issue directly, using the soapbox earned by any Apple CEO when he calls the press to a product announcement to get Apple’s message of privacy and security across one more time. Apple may have once felt comfortable forgoing opportunities to get its views on security and encryption in front of as many people as possible, but those days are over. Game on.

I wonder if every future iPhone product announcement comes wrapped in a message about the importance of smartphones as “an extension of ourselves,” as Cook said today. If you read between the lines, that sure sounds like an argument that smartphones should be a warrant-proof space like the one between our ears.

With the FBI issue addressed, Apple then called out a few executives to reinforce the company’s image as one that wants to leave the world a better place. As one of the world’s most profitable companies talks about its commitment to the environment and its various health-care initiatives, it’s easy to wonder if this is just a form of greenwashing.

I don’t think so. It’s always important to never forget that every single thing that happens on stage at an Apple media event is PR, by definition—this is the image of Apple the company wants us to see. But just because something fulfills a PR purpose doesn’t mean that it isn’t also intended honestly. I do believe that Tim Cook wants to reinforce Apple’s values that the company wants to change the world in ways that can’t be measured by iPhone sales charts.

Apple’s commitment to cleaning up its products is real—nearly a decade ago, Greenpeace bashed Apple for using dangerous materials and creating difficult-to-recyclable products, and the company responded. The work to improve its product recycling even further, including fancy disassembly robots, is commendable.

Similarly, on the health front, Apple is definitely interested in making the iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch into key tools in the healthcare industry. But I do believe that it also sees an opportunity as the owner of a popular mobile-device platform to change the world by making it easier for doctors and patients to use the power of those devices.

That’s what the opening portion of this event was all event: Apple expressing that it is a company that has some specific values. Protecting the privacy and security of its customers is a key value, but so is reducing the environmental footprint its products make and helping the healthcare sector use its products to make a difference in patients’ lives.

When politicians are accusing you of consorting with terrorists, restating your values publicly is probably a good idea. And so there it was.

Spring fashion update

The Apple Watch is not like other Apple products. The swappable watch bands make it fun to personalize—I have four different watch bands and often swap between them. I don’t do it for fashion purposes, but it’s enjoyable to have my watch not be exactly the same every single day. Clearly a lot of Apple Watch users are like this, and Apple seems to have met with some success by offering different styles and colors of watch band from season to season.

So here’s spring, and with it, the spring line of Apple Watch bands. The woven nylon band isn’t my cup of tea, but it seemed well made—if there’s anything we’ve learned in the last year, it’s that Apple has high standards for its watch bands—and there are also new colors of buckle, loop, and sport bands. There’s a midnight blue classic buckle that looks great, and a pretty snazzy yellow sport band.

Cutting the Apple Watch Sport’s price makes sense, too. It’s an aging product, so Apple’s trying to boost sales as we presumably move toward a new version of the Watch this fall.

Back to the future

Greg Joswiak introduces the iPhone SE.

The iPhone SE is an incredibly smart product. But it’s easy for people who are deep down in the technology world not to see it.

For us, it’s all about faster and bigger. The rush for better specs has included a rush toward larger phones. And if you’re a power user of a smartphone, you’re more likely to be able to take advantage of that added screen space.

But listen to the numbers: In the past year, Apple has sold 30 million 4″ iPhones, out of around 230 million total. That’s only 13 percent of the total, but it’s still a very large number of phones—and this, during a year when the most modern four-inch iPhone Apple sells was introduced in the fall of 2013. Is there room for the iPhone SE to be 20 percent of Apple’s total iPhone sales? I think so.

Unlike the iPhone 5S back in 2013, today’s iPhone SE doesn’t need to carry the weight of the entire iPhone line on its shoulders. It’s holding down the bottom end of the product line, sharing space with four other iPhone models. It provides an alternative for all of those people who prefer a smaller iPhone, but don’t want to miss out on more modern technology like Apple Pay and faster processors.

With the iPhone 5S aging out of the product line, Apple had to do something if it wanted to keep a low-cost, 4-inch phone around. The iPhone SE is a mix of iPhone 5 design and iPhone 6 and 6S internals, but the phone it most resembles is the 6S, not the 6. That’s good, because my guess is that the iPhone SE won’t be updated again for a couple of years—so this new model is equipped with enough power to be relevant for a while.

I’ve been an advocate for the four-inch iPhone upgrade for more than a year now, and there were a few times that I thought the product would never actually come to be. I know a bunch of people who have been clinging to their iPhone 5Ses that will be happily placing an order for a new iPhone SE later this week, and congratulations to them for having their hopes answered with a device that’s (mostly) state of the art.

iPad Pro gets complicated

Phil Schiller introduces the new 9.7-inch iPad Pro.

On a lot of levels, calling the new 9.7-inch iPad an iPad Pro instead of an iPad Air makes sense. Apple’s treating the iPad a bit more like a laptop in differentiating product line by feature rather than size. Fair enough.

I think the new iPad Pro model will immediately become the bestselling iPad. The 9.7-inch device is the sweet spot for iPad users, and has been since the very beginning. Adding support for the Apple Pencil will be huge, a boon to artists and students alike. I’m less excited about the Smart Keyboard, which is shrunken down in order to fit the iPad’s smaller screen size, but your mileage may vary.

I do wonder, though, what this means for the long-term future of iPad product naming. Will the iPad Air ever be updated again, or will it fade away, to be replaced by a cheaper 9.7-inch product without the high-end features of the iPad Pro line? There’s now a product line of iPad Pro models—so what’s a “regular iPad” now? The Air 2, I guess, but at some point it will need a technological shot in the arm. What happens then? It’ll be interesting to find out.

Does what it says on the tin

I’ve seen a few people complain that this event was small and somewhat inconsequential. Of course, even when Apple makes major product announcements, people complain that they’re not earth-shattering enough. But in the case of today? Yeah, this was a day with some smaller product announcements. How could it be otherwise?

As John Gruber noted, “A new iPhone and a new iPad demand a proper on-stage unveiling.” And this was a Town Hall event, so what did you expect? If Apple had wanted to throw an all-out, parents-on-vacation rager of a party, it would’ve. Instead, it invited us over to Cupertino for some tea and scones at Town Hall. The tea was lovely. The venue, though crowded, was historic. This was its last hurrah.

Until next year, at the Spaceship

If you appreciate articles like this one, support us by becoming a Six Colors subscriber. Subscribers get access to an exclusive podcast, members-only stories, and a special community.

Search Six Colors