At some point during Apple’s endless presentation on Wednesday, Kirk Koenigsbauer from Microsoft gave a demo showcasing how the new iPad Pro works with Microsoft Office products. The fact that a Microsoft executive was speaking at an Apple event, and trying to get people excited about using Word and Excel AT THE SAME DAMN TIME, was bad enough. But then he created a Venn diagram using Microsoft Excel with the headline “Recipe For Continued Success.” Under it were three bullet points—powerful, fun, engaging—that were then placed into circles of the diagram. It was a brief moment, but a telling one. It showed that Apple has gone from a “cool” behemoth company into just a behemoth behemoth company that thinks corpo-speak can replace real emotion.
The Apple that created the “Think Different” ads with Albert Einstein and Muhammad Ali would never tout its ability to do better word processing. But alas, this is what it’s come to. You got the feeling that even the Apple executives were struggling to get excited about the new products and features they were discussing. The fact that most of the details had already been reported previously didn’t help. Apple events used to be met with baited breath and genuine hype. This one felt like it had to be endured. And the payoff for sitting through the 2+ hour slog? A friggin’ One Republic concert. (Although as BuzzFeed tweeted, “At least it wasn’t U2.”)
The reason for the lack of excitement was the products themselves. There was no moment where Tim Cook or his team said something that made you think “Oh shit, that’s awesome!” Most of the new developments were either derivative of existing products from other companies or just plain “meh.”
Let’s go product-by-product through the underwhelming-ness.
Tim Cook started the presentation with the Apple Watch and talked about how “closing those rings has become a healthy obsession” for users tracking their fitness data. Then it got into a discussion about how doctors can communicate with their patients and I completely tuned out. Apple keeps talking about how the watch is going to revolutionize health care, and that may be true, but as a customer I could care less and I imagine most people who don’t have a serious medical condition feel the same way.
The only news that was kind of cool about the watch was that Apple had partnered with Hermes to bring the luxury leather goods company’s watch straps to the Apple Watch. But that felt more like Apple riding Hermes’s coattails, and not vice verse, which is something we’re not used to seeing from Apple. And I doubt that the opportunity to pay $1,250 for Hermes’s iconic Double Tour leather strap is the kind of thing that gets more than a handful of folks excited.
“The biggest thing in iPad since iPad” was how the new top-of-the-line tablet was introduced. It was part of a series of grandiose proclamations that seemed designed to hide the fact that there was no there there. The iPad Pro does have a 12.9-inch screen, whose width is the same height as the current iPad Air’s height. And its CPU is faster than 80% of portable PCs released in the past nine months. But are people really using iPads like that? Most of the time I see people using them it’s to watch movies and TV shows on planes (or to give to their kids to get them to be quiet on planes). The new speakers on the iPad Pro won’t really make a difference when you’re watching with headphones on.
It doesn’t seem that people have really moved to using iPads instead of their laptops in the workplace as much as tablet makers want them to. Part of the problem with the iPad was the lack of a separate keyboard, which Apple addressed with the iPad Pro. But that felt ripped off straight from the Microsoft Surface tablet, a device I don’t think I’ve ever seen used in real life outside of the Fox NFL pregame show. The Apple Pencil will also increase productivity on the iPad, but the stylus has been around since the days of the Palm Pilot and Steve Jobs famously rejected its use saying our fingers were nature’s stylus. So to see Apple reverse course felt like a flip-flop indicative of a company that is desperate to find something—anything—that connects with consumers.
Just because Apple cribbed existing technologies—the Surface’s keyboard, and the Galaxy Note’s stylus for example—isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s that it didn’t do anything game-changing with the ideas it borrowed. Remember, Apple didn’t create the mp3 player, but the iPod revolutionized it. That new way of thinking was sorely missing in the iPad Pro.
Leading up to Wednesday’s event there was a lot of talk about a new, revamped Apple TV. What we really got was a new Apple TV remote. The Apple TV remote has a touchscreen that replaces button pushing with swiping and a Siri button (not all buttons were replaced!) that allows you to talk to your TV. At one point, they showed how the Touch remote could be used to play games and it felt like you were watching the original Nintendo Wii demo.
The App Store will now be part of Apple TV, which lines up with Cook’s statement that “We believe the future of TV is apps.” It’s an interesting development, but a lot of the apps that people will use on their TV (Netflix, HBO Now, Hulu) were already on Apple TV. It’s far from the order of magnitude push forward we’d come to expect since Apple TV hasn’t undergone a major upgrade in a long time.
Surprising no one, Apple also announced the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus. They were touted as the “most advanced iPhones ever.” Why Apple even felt it necessary to mention that shows how far they were reaching. When you’re comparing your latest product to your last product it damn well better be the most advanced one ever.
There were some camera advancements (12mp iSight camera, 4K video capabilities, the ability to use the Retina display as a flash, GIFs which Apple called “Live Photos”) but everything felt incremental. The biggest new iPhone development was the announcement of 3D Touch. The easiest way to describe it is as the right-click button on a mouse (another advancement which Apple originally shunned), where if you hold down the screen for a certain period of time a menu pops up that allows you to perform functions with less switching in and out of apps. It’s one of those functions that a lot of people will never use, but those that do will love. Still it didn’t meet that “I have to have it” test.
So what can Apple do to get its cool back? For starters it can get out of its mouse-on-a-wheel product announcement schedule. These events have become so predictable. What if Apple waited more than a year to release a new iPhone model and came out with some truly ground-breaking changes? There might be short-term losses, but in the long-term getting people excited about the brand again would be hugely beneficial.
The example I think of is snowboard vs. skateboard videos. Snowboard film companies release a new movie each year. It doesn’t matter if the snow sucked that winter, there will be a new snowboard movie. Skate companies wait years until there’s a product that truly moves the needle. The result is those skate movies are far more memorable. Apple needs to get back to being memorable.
They also need to think of new products. The Apple Watch hasn’t been a huge hit, but that shouldn’t discourage product innovation. Rumors about an Apple car floated around in the weeks leading up to the event. Coming out with a product that truly surprises people (and doesn’t leak beforehand) would be hugely refreshing.
Also, no more boring PowerPoints.