Can Apple Pull Another Rabbit Out of Its Hat?

Apple will unveil new iPhones next week, but has the magic worn off?

Apple CEO Tim Cook

 Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Apple is like the magician who’s already shown you levitation and is now casting about for his next big illusion. Don’t misunderstand me, the iPhone, Apple Watch, even the HomePod, are all quite real, but the excitement we have when Apple first unveils them is ephemeral at best. It shines brightly as flash paper but fades as quickly as, well, the smell of burning paper.

I was thinking back the other day to the iPhone 4S launch, which was held in 2011 in a smallish theater inside one of Apple’s original Infinite Loop campus buildings. It was intimate enough that I could easily spot the front row seat that Apple had surreptitiously covered in black to honor company co-founder and CEO Apple Steve Jobs, who would die a day later.

In contrast, the Steve Jobs Theater (adjacent to Apple’s new Spaceship campus) is a cathedral to the illusion of new. It’s a cavernous wood, glass, and stone-encrusted space that demands shock and awe and puts even greater pressure on Apple to deliver. In lieu of NSA-level secrecy and Jesus Phone amazement, Apple increasingly substitutes volume. Instead of one phone, we have two, three, or more. Instead of one product category, we have several. Instead of hardware, we get services.

We Know What’s Coming

Next week’s “iPhone 11” (unless Apple decides to hold onto “X” for one more cycle) event in Cupertino, California, will focus primarily on a collection of new handsets that, despite a number leaps, won’t stray far from slab phone convention or Apple’s conception of that gleaming glass ideal, but they will, if rumors are to be believed, share the stage with:

  • New iPads with more cameras
  • New Apple Watch case materials
  • New waterproof, noise-cancelling AirPods
  • A more appealing (read much cheaper) HomePod
  • New MacBooks

It’s unlikely the updates to any of these other product categories will be significant, but Apple will surely tout them as exciting and important updates.

The Apple Channel and Catching Up

I’m sure they’ll also spend significant time on Apple TV+, the new content streaming service that launches within days of the event. Consumers, pundits, analysts and investors who have been clamoring for a new Apple Product category may not realize at first that this is it. I do not expect any new hardware verticals like an Apple Car, Apple AR Glasses, or Apple smart HDTV, just this: Its new OTT service featuring big-name stars on small screen shows.

Inside Steve Jobs Theater
This is actually the cavernous space above Steve Jobs Theater.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Apple is in the unusual position of playing catch up on multiple smartphone fronts. It still doesn’t have phones that can share power with small devices. It doesn’t have 5G support and, unless everyone is wrong, that won’t change on Tuesday. It has just two cameras on the back and it’s no longer the smartphone photography leader (I’d say Samsung and Google have drawn even and, in some cases, surpassed Apple).

That’s why a significant portion of Tuesday’s event will focus on smartphone photography, explaining to some extent why Apple has added two more cameras to the back of the phone to create a somewhat visually unappealing four-camera array.

Apple will use its bespoke silicon (the A13 chip) and algorithmic expertise to do things perhaps no one has ever done before with native smartphone photography (you only think you left your cousin out of the family reunion shot). That should be exciting, but I also get the feeling that the majority of smartphone photographers are still not even tapping 20% of the features and functionality of their smartphone cameras. As an amateur photographer who’s been shooting in manual on SLRs and DSLRs for most of his life, I love swiping left or right to access portrait, slo-mo, time-lapse, and panorama modes (along with “Pro” mode on Samsung phones). However, most people who own smartphones are the same ones who bought point-and-shoot cameras. They like to “point and shoot,” not fiddle with options and settings.

Razzle Dazzle

I’m sure Apple will try to dazzle us with some new iPhone materials and manufacturing processes, but unless they have tangible impact on durability (no matter what, screens still scratch, crack, and break), they won’t be of much interest.

To be fair, Apple used to have a secret weapon when it came to selling even the smallest of ideas and seismic shifts: Jony Ive’s voice. The iconic designer is leaving Apple after 30 years. His fingerprints are certainly on these new products, but will his voice help sell any of the ideas in a video? I kind of doubt it.

I won’t lie, I’m still excited about this big Apple Event. Learning about and touching the new gadgets is always a rush. There’s also always the possibly of a surprise. Granted, the chance that something hasn’t leaked in advance is now slight, but that ripple of “one more thing” anticipation never truly goes away. Plus, I love a good magic show.