Apple’s lackluster iPhone launch had us tapping our fingers

Apple's lackluster iPhone launch had us tapping our fingers

Is Apple’s Showtime Losing Its Spark?

“It’s showtime!” wrote Linda Yaccarino, CEO of Twitter (or X, if you must), the day of Apple’s iPhone 15 launch event. She added a camera emoji and a popcorn emoji, indicating she was getting ready for the big show. And hit send on the post…around 10 minutes after the event concluded.

An uncharitable read of Yaccarino’s since-deleted tweet might see it as typical of Twitter under Elon Musk: A day late, a few million ad dollars short. But you could also see it as wry commentary on an unusually dry Apple product launch that had just ended without a bang: Is that all there is? When does showtime start, Tim Cook? When do I grab my popcorn?

At their best, Apple keynotes are like mini Super Bowls for tech media and associated nerds. We gather, eat snacks, and cheer the mildest of advances down the field of progress. We don’t even mind that we’re mostly watching advertising. We’re here for the memes, the fanboy fights, the “are you not entertained” of it all. We’re also curious about what Apple will dare admit about its flaws: the frequent killing off of products and features, the audacious pricing, the endless new dongles.

Under Tim Cook, Apple keynotes became more slick and predictable, especially once COVID hit and live demos gave way to pre-recordings. But they still brought their fair share of meme-worthy entertainment to the proceedings, from stoner fun on 4/20 to the gloriously unhip antics of Craig Federighi, Apple daddy.

But in September 2023, Apple wants to shut the fun down fast, in favor of god-level self-aggrandizing. The iPhone 15 launch opened with a parade of people who wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for Apple features like SOS calling and unusual heart rate detection. Not only does this make for a jarringly blunt marketing message — buy an Apple Watch or die! — it’s also getting old. Apple has sprinkled these kinds of stories through several recent launch events. Now Cook is doubling down by putting them up front.

It wasn’t as if Apple is without audacious new features to celebrate. The September event peaked early with the first and most intriguing of these: double tap, which lets you interface with the Apple Watch Series 9 without actually touching it. You can now control music, alarms, timers, phone calls and many other features by tapping your thumb and forefinger in thin air. An extraordinary Vision Pro-like feature, no expensive headset required.

But double tap was the signal for a series of diversions that soon had viewers tapping their fingers on desks in boredom. The first of these, airlifted into the middle of the Watch update, was the one with the highest production values: a sketch in which Mother Nature, played by Octavia Spencer, drops by Apple HQ for an update on the organization’s pledge to be carbon neutral by 2030.

A worthy and necessary goal, of course, and Spencer was a great fit for the role. Still, what transpired in those five minutes was some of the strangest greenwashing the corporate world has ever seen. The joke, supposedly, is that Mother Nature is furiously skeptical of how much the company can help the climate, while Cook and his team are nervously hopeful they can impress with substantial signs of progress. Yet Apple can’t resist giving everyone in the scene brand new iPhones, including Mother Nature’s assistant. So she’s a hypocrite now?

This isn’t to denigrate former EPA head Lisa Jackson’s progress on recycling, reducing electricity usage and forest-planting. But to call the Apple Watch Series 9 the company’s first “carbon-neutral product” is to really stretch the definition. It also elides the most environmentally responsible way to handle any piece of machinery, which is to not buy a new one if you can avoid it.

Suggesting that Mother Nature is ultimately happy with Apple is to remind us that Apple is still responsible for more than 20 million tons of CO2 emissions a year. Self-congratulatory comedy, apart from anything else, is not as entertaining as sketch star Tim Cook might think.

From that point on, the keynote kept throwing specs at us. We’re supposed to be dazzled by the new number of nits, a unit of light, on the Apple Watch Series 9. But why? What does that mean to the average consumer? Same goes for the segments that managed to make the iPhone 15 seem distinctly underwhelming, as oddly washed out as the colors on the new Pro.

Going deep on chip speed, frame rates, and the titanium construction process might work in the context of Apple’s WWDC keynote, where the main audience consists of developers who slaver over such stats. But this is Apple’s fall product announcement, where the company aims to convince more casual fans of the company to ask for the latest iPhone in their holiday stockings.

But even casual fans couldn’t help but notice what Apple wasn’t saying. The event tried to portray USB-C charging as a hot new much-requested feature on the 15 (and the new AirPods), but we’re all too wary now not to realize what it means: your lightning cables just went extinct. Well, unless you want to pony up $29 per lightning-to-USB-C dongle, something else that went unmentioned.

The list of off-screen changes goes on. The new customizable side button was celebrated, but the loss of the sound on-off slider button marks the end of analog buttons on Apple phones. The iPhone 14 Pro went missing from the Apple Store, meaning your only official Pro option is to wait for the 15 Pro, which isn’t even available for pre-order yet. This seems worth mentioning!

What remains to be seen: whether the underwhelming event continues a downward trend in Apple stock, as Tuesday’s market performance suggested it did; whether Apple will have a second fall event to showcase the iPad; and whether that will be more of a much-needed mini-Super Bowl than this attempt.

Is it showtime yet, Tim Cook?