Friday, September 14, 2012

What happens if Apple's announcements are no longer news?

This was the week of Apple's big iPhone 5 reveal, and it was like many of Apple's press announcements: A packed Yerba Buena Center; Apple executives describing product features using superlatives usually reserved for...well, for Apple product launches; and the usual product videos, including designer Jony Ive talking about how incredible his latest design is. There was also the endless parade of television news trucks lining the streets around Moscone Center, and the ever-increasing number of liveblogs covering the events AS! THEY! HAPPENED! What there wasn't was much actual news, and that could be a problem for future Apple product launches.

As the Columbia Journalism Review pointed out, virtually every detail of the iPhone 5 had been leaked before the event. The iPhone checked all the boxes on the "must have" feature list--bigger screen, faster processor, better camera and LTE--but there wasn't anything groundbreaking about its design or functionality. If you didn't know that the iPhone 5's bigger screen can accommodate an additional row of icons, it would be hard to tell the iPhone 5 apart from the 4 or 4S at a glance. (Update, September 23, 2012: The iPhone 5 is actually fairly easy to tell apart from the 4 and 4S, even when it's not turned on. Apple has done away with all the chrome trim on the phone, and the back is metal, not glass.)

In addition, the presentation was long. There was everything you'd expect in an iPhone rollout, followed by everything you'd expect in an iPod rollout. I suspect that Apple tied the two announcements together in order to get more attention for the new iPods, but if the company is actually planning to launch a smaller iPad next month, it probably wouldn't have hurt anything to announce the iPods at that event.

The CJR picked up on some of the liveblogs' sense of disappointment: They noted that Engadget's coverage reached parody levels, with 78 exclamation points in 122 minutes. The New York Times' coverage was deemed sober, although assigning four reporters to the story was overkill. The Wall Street Journal also avoided getting over-excited.

Some observers say that Apple is most likely going down the same path with the iPhone that it followed with the iMac, MacBook Pro and MacBook Air product lines: It's optimized the physical design of the iPhone, and future changes will be more incremental than revolutionary. That makes sense and may very well be true, but you rarely see the huge press turnout and coverage for Apple's Mac product announcements that you see for the iPhone and iPad.

It's true that customers don't seem to find the iPhone 5 disappointing--it sold out of its first week's allotment in 30 minutes, and that was with pre-ordering starting at 3:01 a.m. Eastern time in the U.S. However, what matters in this case is whether the press sees a lot of news value in Apple's future announcements. If all the major news leaks before the announcements, the story is going to become what Apple was still able to keep secret, not what it announces. Given that Apple has so many production partners, keeping new products under wraps will only get harder.

Apple's had an enormous advantage over its competitors because it could count on at least $100 million in free publicity for each launch from the world's biggest media outlets, processed through news organizations in order to give it an extra level of authority. If Apple's announcements lose their newsworthiness, they'll also lose their impact. Even if Apple's management figures out how to go back to the CIA-like levels of security the company's product launches had in the past, its "reality distortion field" may be gone for good.
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