By John Gruber
Atoms: We are not selling shoes this time…
This was it: one big event for all of Apple’s late 2015 product announcements. In the previous three years, Apple held separate events in September (iPhone) and October (iPad/Mac). They’ve done this because they typically have more to announce than would fit comfortably in one event. As I wrote yesterday, I thought they’d have two events again this year, because it looked like they once again had more stuff ready to announce than would fit, comfortably, in one event.
To do just one event, something had to give. One casualty was the Mac. Other than a few offhand references to things that work with features in Mac OS X, the Mac got no stagetime whatsover. El Capitan’s only public demo will have been at WWDC back in June. Whatever new Macs get released this year (retina 21-inch iMac, updated MacBook Pros?) will be announced via press releases.
The second casualty was my bladder. Today’s event ran 2h:20m, including the musical performance by One Republic. That’s long. Not ridiculously long. Not too long, even. But long. It couldn’t have gone any longer — and from what I’ve gathered from a few little birdies, Apple had to cut a lot during rehearsals to get it down to the length it ran.
My guess is that one event, in early September, is going to be the new normal. I gather that Apple has decided that putting all of its wood behind one fall event arrow, even if it means that they have to cut worthy products from getting any stage time, is better than spreading themselves too thin with two events in short succession.
Everything visible inside the Bill Graham Center was installed by Apple. Most of the structure was built just for the event. They even bought all the seating — you should probably contact Apple if you’re looking to buy theater seating. Effectively, Apple designed and built their own custom theater just for this event. It looked great. Especially the screen — that was the biggest and best screen I can recall at an Apple event. The acoustics and sound quality were excellent as well.
There were around 1,500 people in the audience — but at least 1,000 were Apple employees. That’s new — there have never been that many Apple employees at one of these events before, with the possible exception of last year’s event at the Flint Center. At a smaller venue like Yerba Buena or Apple’s tiny on-campus Town Hall, there just isn’t enough room. At WWDC (and in years past, Macworld Expo) Moscone is filled with paid ticket holders. Having that many employees in the room changes the tenor of the audience considerably — the cheering and applause were raucous.
In terms of stagecraft, this event was really well-structured and edited. That’s in stark contrast to June’s WWDC keynote, which was, by Apple’s standards, a bit of a rambling mess. In hindsight, I think this year’s WWDC keynote was the worst Apple event in years, and perhaps the worst in the modern (post-NeXT reunification) Apple era. It was too long, had no flow between acts/segments, and the Apple Music segment was downright awkward and under-rehearsed.
One of the reasons I didn’t expect to see iPad Pro announced at this event is that I thought adding a fourth act (in addition to iPhone, Watch, and TV) would make the show feel messy, like that WWDC keynote. Apple did add a fourth act, but there was a tight flow and it felt like there was a logical order to the segments. It felt like a show that had four acts, not just four announcements stitched together.
I have never been in the “Apple is doomed without Steve Jobs” camp, but I did long wonder whether Apple would suffer gravely without Jobs when it came to these keynotes. Not that Jobs, the presenter, was irreplaceable — even though, without question, he was the best stage presence, a genuine rock star. Apple has plenty of good presenters. It was Jobs the director, writer, and editor who I worried Apple would miss. The keynote auteur. Steve Jobs could look at a list of products and announcements and he knew how to structure an event around them. During rehearsals, Jobs had final cut over everything: what was announced, in what order, at what pace — every word, every slide. He had a knack for it.
It’s often painfully obvious that the public presentations of big companies are dictated by internal politics more than showmanship. Jobs had the unquestioned stature to settle any such arguments, and his innate showmanship allowed him to keep the focus relentlessly on putting together a good cohesive show. I think we saw a drift away from that cohesiveness back at WWDC this year.
Today’s event was a welcome course correction — and given the breadth of the announcements, it was all the more impressive.
The expansion of color options for Apple’s sport bands was predictable, but it’s smart. With the addition of two new anodized colors for the Sport watches (gold and a feminine-but-not-girly rose gold), the complete product matrix for all the various watch straps, watch sizes, and watch finishes is remarkably complex. I think it’s a good example, though, of a product matrix that is complex but not complicated. People know what they like when they see it.
The Apple Watch Hermès is interesting. I speculated back in May that luxury brands like Tiffany and Louis Vuitton might make watch bands for Apple Watch. This is even better — a full-on partnership between Apple and a luxury fashion brand, including a custom branded watch face. (How will that work? A custom Hermès build of WatchOS — sort of like the individual per-carrier builds of iOS for iPhones? Or will WatchOS only offer the Hermès watch face on watches within a specific serial number / device ID range?) The Hermès straps are gorgeous.
I still think Tiffany is a good bet for a similar partnership. They have a signature color that would look great on a woman’s watch strap. Gucci would be a great fit, too. And of course Burberry, for obvious reasons. In theory, Louis Vuitton would work, but in practice it might prove politically unfeasible, because Louis Vuitton is the “LV” in LVMH, the French luxury mega-conglomerate1 that owns luxury watch brands like TAG Heuer, Hublot, Zenith, and others.
Apple called the A9X “desktop class”, and that’s not hyperbole. They said it outperforms 80 percent of laptops sold in the last 12 months — and 90 percent of them in graphics. But, let’s face it, the vast majority of “laptops” are piece of crap PCs. What’s impressive is that the iPad Pro will compare favorably to very recent MacBooks. I think it’ll benchmark comparably to, say, a 2013 MacBook Air. I wouldn’t be surprised if the iPad Pro outperforms the Intel Core-based Surface Pro 3 from Microsoft. iPad Pro might be the inflection point where Apple’s ARM chips surpass Intel’s x86 in terms of raw speed for this class of hardware — and if it doesn’t, next year’s A10X will.
As with other iPads and iPhones, Apple won’t talk about RAM, even though developers will be able to find out as soon as they get their hands on them. If we were to wager on the amount of RAM in iPad Pro, my bet would be 4 GB. And I would wager very heavily.
Apple TV is hot. I only got a brief period to play with it, but it seems fast, responsive, beautiful, and intuitive. It feels alive. If I worked at Apple I’d want to be on that team. On first impression, it is everything I wanted to see. It sounds like a small talented team got to build the Apple TV they wanted to see and use themselves. There is a clarity and vision to the entirety of its design. I think it exemplifies the best of Apple.
The new Apple TV seems great for both video consumption and casual gaming. The MLB At Bat demo during the event was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. Not just because I’m a baseball fan, but because it presented a revolutionary way to watch live events, period. I think Apple TV might be the most disruptive product from Apple since the iPhone. Not the most lucrative, necessarily, but the most disruptive — in the sense of defining how all TVs will work in a few years.
“3D Touch” is the new “Force Touch” (Craig Federighi slipped at one point, saying “force” before correcting himself.) I’ve seen concerns that this overcomplicates the iPhone’s UI design, but I would argue the opposite. It’s the multi-touch equivalent of keyboard shortcuts on the desktop: shortcuts for tasks that can all be accomplished without it. To use the old parlance, 3D Touch is for power users.
The taptic feedback feels great. Apple calls the two levels “peek” and “pop”. They definitely feel different. Peek is like the half-press on a camera shutter to auto-focus, and pop is the full-press to take a picture. Pop feels stronger. And, for 3D touch UI elements that only have one level, you feel the pop right away, giving you haptic feedback that you need not try pressing harder, because you’re already all the way in. The taptic engine also serves as the vibrator for notifications, and I suspect that’s going to be a big improvement over the rinky-dink vibrator in every iPhone since the iPhone 4.
One small camera bummer: just like last year, optical image stabilization is only available on the Plus. And on the 6S Plus, it’s even better: OIS now works for video (up to 1080p) in addition to stills — Apple had a demo video shot while hiking on a trail and it looked really smooth.
I very much liked the iPhone 6S commercial: “The only thing that’s changed is everything.” It head-on addresses the knee-jerk criticism that the 6S/Plus look like last year’s 6/Plus by showing people using all the new features, all of which are pretty cool.
The “M” and “H” in LVMH are Moët and Hennessy — champagne and cognac. That’s conglomeration. ↩︎