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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

iPhone Event: The set list isn’t the performance

So huge swaths of tomorrow’s Apple media event appear to have been leaked. It’s happened before—the chrome-arm iMac, the iPhone 4, the body of the original iPad, and many more.

I’m not going to list what we think we know. It’s a lot. Instead, let’s consider what we probably don’t know going into Tuesday.

In terms of raw facts, we don’t know prices and storage tiers. We don’t seem to know if any new iPhone models will support inductive charging via an add-on accessory. Any deals being made with content providers for the new Apple TV are probably still secure. There are probably a few other bits that aren’t gleanable from the complete contents of an iOS 11 firmware package, but it’s not a huge list.

Still, it’s a little like saying that reading a set list is a replacement for attending a concert. The appeal of an Apple product launch is not a product’s spec sheet, it’s the reveal. (If you want to test this, refuse to watch an Apple product launch sometime and limit yourself to the Tech Specs pages. Good luck.)

An Apple product reveal is pure marketing. It’s the opportunity for Apple to tell its story, and yes, it’s trying to convince the media, the world, and you personally to buy what it’s selling. For me, the most interesting thing about an Apple product launch is not what the PC industry used to call the “speeds and feeds”—the specs and prices and other technical details—but the stories Apple tells around the products it’s selling.

Stories are compelling. The famed Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Field wasn’t about blazing specs, it was about telling a story that put you and a new Apple product in the center of a miraculous future that had just arrived in the present.

Even if you roll your eyes at that, consider this: The way Apple describes its new products says something about how Apple views those products itself. Which features is it emphasizing? Who is being targeted? When Apple announced the HomePod in June, one of the most notable things about the roll-out was that the company pushed audio quality hard while spending almost no time on Siri. That was notable.

As a product reviewer, I’ve found it incredibly valuable to understand how a company pitches a product. That doesn’t mean that I’ll agree with their attempt, but it lets me understand something about the market the product is meant to serve. Generally, products are best evaluated through the lens of what they’re intended to be—not what we unrealistically wished they were. Not every product is designed for me, and I need to keep that in mind when I’m writing.

There are also the product demos. Sometimes these can be crashingly boring, but sometimes they’re the highlight of the day. Apple is riding high on the hype generated from the ARKit announcement in June, and I expect ARKit to get a big demo that will generate even more hype. What major developers have been spending this entire summer working on augmented-reality apps that will blow us away? I’m sure Apple had a pretty decent group to choose from.

And of course, with the new iPhone X (assuming that’s its name), how does Apple explain the new features and why they’re worth the price? How does Apple contrast the OLED screen in that iPhone with the LCD screens in the other models? How does Face ID work in practice? How does Apple describe the value of 4K and HDR video in rolling out the Apple TV 4K?

Apple is a big enough company that if it wanted to release all its products by press release, it could. It puts on a two-hour show several times a year because it wants to tell the story around the products. Reading a plot synopsis isn’t the same thing as watching the movie. To be sure, there are some people who read plot synopses and consider it good enough—but most of us like to see the story unfold. Placing all the technology in a proper human context (that, not coincidentally, makes those humans desperately want to buy Apple products) is what Apple media events are all about.

And that’s why I’m still excited about tomorrow’s Apple media event—and why you probably should be, too. We probably know most of the songs the band’s going to play, but it’s no replacement for seeing how the band plays them.

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