Today, I drove an hour down to Cupertino to watch a movie. It was actually a series of shorts about iPhones, Apple Watches, and AirPods, and it played in a cinema called the Steve Jobs Theater. It was a good movie. Better than expected.
Apple’s fall product event today was the first one in three years to be held in person, not just virtually. And it appears the pandemic might have permanently altered Apple’s events game: Apple executives once walked out on stage and gave live product presentations, like what Steve was famous for. But today, it was just one product video after another.
That approach has its merits, I suppose; it seems designed to give people watching the livestream the same information as those in the theater. Yet, there are things you don’t get just watching the livestream.
“Even if it is mainly videos, it’s still nice to get the in-person vibe,” said tech industry analyst Maribel Lopez of Lopez Research. “It’s just not the same watching on the livestream because you don’t get the hands-on with the products, which really gives you a sense of what they are. You get the texture; the colors come to life. And you also get a feel for what resonated with the tech-savvy audience that attends these events.”
Here then, are some of the details I noticed from being there in person.
The first thing you see are the Apple greeters. They’re everywhere. At literally every turn in the underground parking garage, a greeter in an orange vest was there to guide me forward. I estimate that for every member of the media, there were five Apple greeters. Having so many of them around might also be part of the security plan. Whatever the reason, I didn’t mind.
Speaking of security, everybody was asked to remove the laptop from their bag and then step through a metal detector. Security personnel also scanned our bags for anything harmful. This additional layer of security is new, and it was no trouble at all. In fact, I appreciated the extra safety (and I wasn’t the only one). It’s an unfortunate sign of the times that this is needed, I suppose.
But some things hadn’t changed. For one, it was nice to be back in the Steve Jobs Theater and its airy, glassed-in first floor. I even like the walk up to the theater on the little garden path with the new-age music playing from speakers hidden in the shrubbery. The coffee was very good (courtesy of Caffè Macs). And the sound inside the theater was impressive and loud, with an array of wedge speakers on both sides of the stage.
At 9:45 a.m., it was time to descend the curved staircase and enter the theater below. The screen showed the visuals of the outer space theme that had adorned the event invitation. Music boomed from the speakers. Then the show started. First, Tim Cook walked out on the stage, and all the Apple employees immediately stood and clapped. It seemed pretty canned. But Cook was onstage for only about a minute, anyway. And then the movies started.
The crowd of some 500 or so journalists and analysts and photographers was quiet throughout the first part of the presentation, which focused on the Apple Watch 8 and AirPods Pro. The biggest crowd response came after the promo video for the iPhone 14 Pro. People seemed excited about the 48 megapixel camera and the new camera software features.
I also heard several gasps of utter surprise from those around me when it was announced that the iPhone 14 would not have a physical SIM card tray (for the phones in the U.S.).
And when the video mentioned the name “Dynamic Island” (Apple’s new interface helper that grows from the area of the screen where the front camera lives), everybody around me started laughing. Which made me laugh. The feature is real and cool, and the name seemed less funny when I learned more about the new feature.
“Dynamic Island will get a lot of attention from upgraders,” Creative Strategies president and principle analyst Carolina Milanesi told me after the event. “They really refined the space that was [used] for the camera; they rethought the design to take advantage of that space.”
I expected more of a reaction when the prices of Apple’s new phones showed up on the big screen. The prices for this year’s the top-of-the-line “Pro” iPhones are unchanged from last year. The iPhone 14 Pro starts at $999, and the iPhone Pro Max starts at $1,099.
“These are all iterative updates to already unbelievably popular products,” Techsponential president Avi Greengart told me about the new Pro phones. “People spend hours and hours on these devices every day. So given that their pricing didn’t change, and there are new features like safety and battery life, consumers are going to buy a lot of these products.”
Before the credits even rolled, I bolted from my seat and headed out the doors to the other side of the building to the devices’ hands-on area. I tried on the Apple Watch Ultra and found it to be lighter than I’d expected. The new Watch is thicker than other Watches and has a larger 49mm display.
I tried out the new AirPods Pro and can report that, yes, they both sound better and cancel out noise better.
The new camera features on the iPhone 14 Pro Max appear to be for real. The level of detail in the portrait shots I saw looked to me like they’d been shot with a DSLR. I even made the presenter prove to me in the metadata that the Pro Max had indeed produced those photos. The quality of the camera system may tempt some DSLR devotees to leave their big cameras at home.
It’s fairly common for Apple executives to make an appearance at the hands-on session after a product announcement. Today, Tim Cook showed up to meet and greet and take selfies with admirers. I noticed it was actually pretty easy to get a selfie with him. There were a few people around him, some of them his Apple handlers, but not the five-person-deep crowds I’ve seen surrounding him at such events in the past. Not sure what that means, if anything.
Talking to people before the event, some Apple watchers feared today’s event might be boring. After all, nobody thought the company would announce any new products or enter any new categories or talk about augmented reality (which is becoming the elephant in the room). The fear was that the company would simply announce some gradient improvements to existing products—news that had already leaked. And the leakers proved mostly right. Still, Apple delivered more, including some pretty big surprises. Nobody I talked to after the event was disappointed. With features like Dynamic Island and new product variations like the Apple Watch Ultra, Apple proved again that it can develop wholly new things, not just riff on old themes.
I think I might even watch the movie again at home.