The undertones of today’s Apple event: delight and diversity

October 23, 2013

Today was a special day. In all of my years covering consumer technology, and all of my years attending Apple’s keynotes, this is the first one that I’ve been able to devote my full and undivided attention to. Typically, I’m responsible for slinging upwards of 200 images into a liveblog viewer, frantically attempting to decipher the ideal Kelvin setting while matching the speed of my partner in crime – and when that man is Tim Stevens, that’s no easy feat.

Today I witnessed an Apple keynote with fresh eyes. I had no immediate duties, and I was able to absorb the presentation in a new way. I’m obviously interested in the product announcements on a personal level, but as a watcher of this space, I focused more on the undertones of the keynote. What struck me most during the event were items that seemed to fly by most of those who were there to expressly cover the news, and as an unashamed power user, I was heartened by a few of them.

For starters, Apple spent an inordinate amount of time in today’s presentation focused on the power user. From (perhaps overly long) demos of advanced OS X Mavericks features to atypical spiels involving the most granular of technical specifications, the “Computer” of the former “Apple Computer” was in full force today.

Increasingly, Apple has focused on the consumer. The mainstream adopter. The person who fell first for iSomething, and may or may not have ever used a Mac in any serious fashion. Given how those businesses have scaled, it makes sense from a number of standpoints – financial, mindshare, etc. Today, the iPad was given equal treatment with a new Mac Pro and a new desktop operating system. To me, that’s saying something.

The Mac Pro was in dire need of a refresh, but Apple surely knows that even a revised model is only going to sell to a sliver of its consumer base. Heck, most visual professionals would’ve been content using the old cage with updated internals, but Apple still devoted a sizable chunk of resources to rethinking the desktop. Apple’s doing more to lead society beyond the PC than any other company in its class, but today, the Mac Pro was given its time to shine.

Whoever’s making the call to allow engineers to fine-tune the company’s most powerful products, despite the fact that few will be sold, should be praised. I was beginning to worry that the complete and total consumerization of Apple was a sealed fate.

OS X Mavericks is also a refreshing update. The most recent OS X updates reeked of iOS in far too many ways. Instead of developing ways to increase efficiency, enhance customization, and bolster the multi-tasker’s ability to simply get more done, OS X was creeping into simplified territory. Mavericks introduces tabbed Finder windows. I’d wager that a woefully small slice of OS X users will bother to craft new workflows around the ability to suck multiple Finder windows into one space on their desktop, but today, Apple showed me that it does still care about those folks on some level.

I was also able to fully appreciate just how fundamentally different Apple is from its primary competition. The keynote began with a replay of an inspirational design video that debuted at WWDC – not a thing new about the clip, but CEO Tim Cook came forth to drive home this point: Apple is focused first on being a company that amazes, and last on the numbers that Wall Street watches. Mind you, I’m not saying this as a delusional fan of Apple’s work, but on a human level, who could fault a corporation as large as Apple for attempting to quantify success using “delight” as a factor? If you’re working in a numbers-obsessed field, my guess is that you’d be elated if anything of this sort played a role in judging your own progress.

All in all, it was a something of a hodgepodge show. A bit of iPhone, a healthy helping of culture, an overload of demos from Apple’s first-party software team, a shocking amount of technical talking points related to a black cylinder that I can only wish I needed, and a re-envisioned pricing strategy on the tablet front. The company managed to touch on pretty much every single part of its modern business in one keynote. (There was nary a mention of iPod, but it no longer reports iPod sales in its quarterly earnings.)

A final takeaway: Apple strikes me as the kind of place that wants its customers to trust it to build amazing things. How many “delighted” iPhone users are going to buy whatever wearable Apple decides to build without reading a single review? A lot of them. The company has managed to execute on a singular philosophy of delight in a way that’s most impressive, but in doing so, has raised its level of responsibility tremendously. Cook made clear that he cared little about letting Wall Street down – he’s not going to build a phablet in four months or a headset tomorrow just because he’d move some units. He seems far more concerned about ensuring that the next Apple product is as good (if not better) than the last.

That’s becoming a tall task, but as I personally know so well, there are indeed good problems to have.