By John Gruber
Atoms: We are not selling shoes this time…
Charlie Warzel, in his column for The New York Times last Wednesday, “The Last Apple Keynote (Let’s Hope)”:
But what started as a Steve Jobs TED talk has become a parody — a decadent pageant of Palo Alto executives, clothed in their finest Dad Casual, reading ad copy as lead-ins for vaguely sexual jump-cut videos of brushed aluminum under nightclub lighting. The events are exhausting love letters to consumerism complete with rounds of applause from the laptop-lit faces of the tech blogging audience when executives mention that you (yes you!) can hold the future in your hands for just $24.95 per month or $599 with trade-in.
There was a long thread on Twitter in response, mostly either mocking Warzel or rationally objecting to the slew of things he got wrong about these events. That second link will open a long conversation thread on Twitter, which Warzel himself joined, and is well worth reading. I’ll leave the point-by-point critique to that Twitter thread, but I must point out that the “tech bloggers” with “laptop-lit faces” generally don’t applaud during Apple keynotes — journalistic stoicism aside, the reason their faces are laptop-lit is that they’re busy live-blogging and typing notes. The raucous applause you hear throughout Apple keynotes comes from Apple employees and VIP invitees. There are a lot fewer media attendees at these events than most people think, especially at smaller venues like Steve Jobs Theater.
The entire event is at odds with our current moment — one in which inequality, economic precarity and populist frustration have infiltrated our politics and reshaped our relationships with once-adored tech companies. But it’s not just the tech backlash. When the world feels increasingly volatile and fragile, it feels a little obscene to gather to worship a $1,000 phone. […]
Nobody is there to “worship” a phone. But the main point Warzel misses is that the people invited to attend Apple’s events are not the point, and are not really the audience. These are not press events. They are “Apple events” and Apple invites a limited number of media to attend. The millions of people out in the world who watch via video are the real audience. Apple wants to pitch them directly, and millions of people want to see it. And I do mean millions — tens of millions. I’m going to be lazy and just quote here from last week’s issue of Dan Frommer’s excellent subscription newsletter The New Consumer1:
Apple generally doesn’t share information about how popular its keynote livestreams are, even after it has spent the last several years stoking the audience with Twitter-based reminder campaigns.
But yesterday the company also streamed its iPhone 11 event on YouTube for the first time. And there alone, almost 2 million people were watching concurrently. That’s on top of however many were watching Apple’s official stream — potentially an equal or greater number. That’s a lot!
The full archived video also now has 2 million views on YouTube, an Apple Event in a flash highlight reel has 13 million, an iPhone 11 video has 14 million, and an iPhone 11 Pro video has 10 million. Pity the Apple Watch Series 5, with just 1.5 million views.
I think of this whenever I hear dated thinking about “normal users” versus “geeks,” or some other similarly phrased dichotomy.
Frommer wrote that Wednesday, the day after Apple’s event. Today, almost a week after the event, those YouTube view numbers are up to:
And again, those numbers don’t include however many million people watch Apple’s own hosted version of the event video.
There are plenty of things one could criticize about Apple’s events, last week’s included, but the basic idea of them is not “at odds with our current moment”. If anything, people look to them as relief from the current moment. Gadgets are fun. Apple, of course, loves the massive publicity these events — especially iPhone events — generate. Apple enthusiasts love watching the events. Everyone else is free to ignore them. These events aren’t like the Super Bowl, where the whole country either shuts down or holds a viewing party.2 Apple events are ridiculously easy to ignore if you don’t care.
Back to Warzel:
The company’s flagship product — the iPhone — no longer feels like a piece of the future dropped from into the hands of mere mortals. It feels like, well, a phone, a commodity. And so the whole thing seems gratuitous, self-serving and, most importantly, quite removed from the very fraught relationship most of us have with our phones.
People love their phones, iPhone owners in particular, and millions of them are happy to watch Apple introduce new ones. There’s no question that “Hey, maybe we all spend too much time and attention on our phones” is on our minds, but that’s secondary to the fact that we love our phones.
That’s part of why the keynotes need to end. Losing them doesn’t mean that the new technology isn’t impressively engineered (machine learning cameras!) or that Apple has failed. It’s probably the opposite. The iPhone set out to change everything, and it did. Mr. Jobs famously pitched Apple products with the line, “It just works.” He’s right. It does. And we live with the effects — the good and the very bad — every day. There’s no more need for the song and dance — or Lewis and Clarking a digital frog across a bathroom floor.
“Need” is a strawman word. Of course we don’t need to see Apple introduce new phones. And Apple doesn’t need to hold an event to introduce them. But should Apple continue to hold these events? Of course they should. Jiminy.
The whole thing is a bluff. If there’s even a whiff of seriousness to Warzel’s proposal, it’s that — what? — the tens of millions of people interested in learning about Apple’s new products would be better served reading about it in publications like, oh, say, The New York Times? Filtered by writers like Warzel, who is so jaded he’s already deemed the new phones “a commodity”, and his colleague Jack Nicas, who mocked a woman wearing a media badge at the event for crying “during an Apple Watch ad”. That was good for a we’re above any sense of emotion laugh until the woman in question, Ellen Cushing of The Atlantic, piped into the thread with this unguarded and honest response.
There’s no reason to write a column unless you have an objective. Could be you just want to make the reader laugh. Usually, it’s to make a point. You don’t have to make your point literally. Many times, it’s more effective not to make your point literally. Arguably the most famous essay in the English language is Jonathan Swift’s 1729 “A Modest Proposal”, wherein Swift proposed that poor Irish people sell their children as food to wealthy Englishmen. Swift’s point was made through satire: British callousness toward the plight of the Irish was deeply immoral. Absurdity made the point painfully clear.
Warzel’s column isn’t satirical in the least. But it’s not literal, either. Imagine Warzel’s own discomfort if Phil Schiller were to call him and invite him to Cupertino to help Schiller make the case to Tim Cook that Apple should stop holding events. Seriously, imagine if Tim Cook went to the Apple board and told them Apple would no longer be holding product introduction events, because he was persuaded by Charlie Warzel’s column in The New York Times. Imagine the scene. The board members would start looking around the room for hidden cameras. They’d check for booze on Cook’s breath.
This gets to the heart of the utter vacuousness of Warzel’s column. What Warzel has written — not on his personal blog, mind you, but in a column in the goddamn New York Times — has nothing to do with Apple, nothing to do with iPhone users, and nothing to do with society or culture at large. It is not an honest attempt to persuade anyone about anything.
It’s all about Charlie Warzel.
Warzel wrote an entire column in The New York Times to let the world know that even though he writes about technology, he’s so far above getting excited about any of it that he thinks Apple should stop holding events to introduce new products. To quote my favorite spiritual leader, “Well, isn’t that special?”