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It's a tough crowd at Apple Park. One of the first hot takes to fly off the grill of the New York Times after Apple's iPhone launch event this week demanded that the company stop doing product events entirely because they have become "exhausting love letters to consumerism." But is angry, embittered cynicism a more legitimate response to a product launch than any other emotional reaction?
Apple's non-event Event is just too much of an event
"The Last Apple Keynote (Let's Hope)," a Times opinion piece written by Charlie Warzel, took issue with Apple bringing developers on stage to show off their new Arcade titles— pretty common fare for a tech event— calling it "peculiar and out of touch." Why was an executive on stage narrating what was happening on screen in the new Frogger? Outrageous. Burn the place down. Never again.
Warzel actually wrote that it was "cognitive whiplash" for Apple to be introducing new front camera "slofies" on its new iPhone 11 when just recently there had been sensationalized reports whipped up by a competitor that a "major iPhone vulnerability targeted the Uighurs."
Actually it was the Chinese government targeting this ethnic group, not Apple — and in fact, the state surveillance program affects all phones, not just Apple's, but why get bogged down in details when you're trying to make a point? No slofies! Just cut this innovation stuff out until the world is a utopia and we can relax a bit.
Apparently, there should be no keynotes and certainly no new iPhone camera features as long as any big government is unjustly targeting its minorities! Otherwise, how will we stay mad about Apple not caring about the Uighurs, apart from scrambling to fixing the issues that affected them long before anyone even knew about them?
I'm having cognitive whiplash just trying to keep up with this bizarre logic. I also have the sneaking suspicion that Warzel wasn't invited to Apple Park.
"When the world feels increasingly volatile and fragile, it feels a little obscene to gather to worship a $1,000 phone," Warzel stated. Except that nobody was worshiping a phone, and Apple was promoting its cheapest new mass-market model in three years. The tone of his entire piece seems to suggest that to be a real and honest journalist, you have to be upset and cynical and agree that technology is boring now that Apple is leading the mobile world, and that there's actually a "very fraught relationship most of us have with our phones."
Ever since Apple invented the modern smartphone, "we live with the effects — the good and the very bad," Warzel concluded. Yes, remember before iPhones how everything was sunshine and roses with the Windows PCs we got to use? No existential crisis, no grief at seeing ads for a video game, and certainly no minorities were being persecuted. Now there's nothing we can do but shake our fists at Apple for just tilting things into the "very bad" world of misery that is a handheld device that works so well that we're pained to have to charge it up regularly, like an addict. It's miserable.
Warzel also took the time to promote a tweet by Wired senior writer Lauren Goode, which said the "Apple event today felt like a non-event," particularly because Apple was acting "eerily calm" even as American tariffs could impact its hardware.
Who else was expecting Apple to host a more dramatically "eventy" event by slinking on stage, apologetic and emotionally crushed at the prospect of its products possibly be further taxed during the ongoing trade war? Instead, we get all this talk about fancy cameras and new silicon and upcoming software titles. What kind of event ever does this? This is just a not-event, because tariffs.
Tears and applause
Warzel's piece was retweeted by Jack Nicas, his colleague who covers Silicon Valley for Times. Nicas lamented that "many" Apple bloggers act as fans, not journalists, specifically noting that "one" person in the Steve Jobs Theater stood up to applaud Tim Cook and another cried during an Apple Watch video featuring users whose lives had been changed or even saved by the device. Nicas called it "strange" that people covering Apple could have emotional reactions to any the company's announcements.
But it's not strange. Anyone who has observed any significant number of tech events knows this. Every tech company is trying to tap into the emotions of its audience. It's just that most aren't so good at it. Remember Microsoft's Steve Ballmer leading his audience in chanting "developers, developers, developers!" on stage to while pounding his fist and drenched in sweat? That was strange, but it didn't generate any major newspaper opinion pieces about how precarious the company's grasp of reality was.
Remember those heart-jerking product videos by Google — one portraying a sailor teleconferencing with his family on a Google tablet from the bowels of ship that clearly wouldn't have a fast broadband connection; another showing off to great applause the incredible new feature of a camera app that uses Machine Learning to erase a chain-link fence to clearly portray the beautiful daughter playing baseball on the other side of it; and then a smart voice service that robocalls restaurants on your behalf to make reservations for you in an impressively realistic synthetic voice.
Who cares that none of that ever really shipped in a way that measured up to the emotions they stoked. Journalists certainly didn't, they just cheered and cried and then moved on.
And remember the excitement of Samsung and Huawei showing off a folding OLED screen that more than double the cost of an ultra-premium smartphone to enable it to turn into a feature-compromised Android tablet that no wants anyway? Tears and applause, then more tears when they fell apart at launch, then more applause as they were pulled from the market to sit in limbo all year. No tears for "worshiping a $2000 device" because well, this is different. This kind of event is a real event! And nobody is spying on Uighurs with a Galaxy Fold.
And, Warzel had to be told that most of the folks cheering were Apple employees. The rest of the folks were too busy typing and relaying information back to the teams that didn't get to go to the event.
Apple events take fun to tears
The only thing worse than excessive attempts to excite the audience is snoozer events from companies that think everything they can announce is exciting and deserves applause, when much of what they are showing doesn't. What makes Apple's Events novel is that they generally follow the style established by Steve Jobs decades ago in framing technical advancements as something worthy of being excited about. In a word: they're fun.
Sometimes they can feel like too much fun, such as when the front rows of special guests and employees cheer like its an Apple Store opening up or they're trying to wake up WWDC attendees marching in jetlagged from their flights to register. Some people don't like all this cheering— it can certainly get excessive— but also some people don't like waffles. Probably best just to accept it.
Apple's cheering is certainly no worse than Microsoft throwing its mock funerals or Google and all of its creepy Android robot dolls everywhere. Companies are sometimes just eccentric.
Deirdre Obrien sounds like she brought in the Apple Retail cheering section. Gives them a shout out to wild applause.— Daniel Eran Insider (@DanielEran) September 10, 2019
More recently, Apple has been shining a spotlight on how its products empower users, often in ways that are genuinely emotionally moving. At this week's event, Tim Cook introduced the new Apple Watch Series 5 by showing off things existing Apple Watch models have already done for users. Real people who had heartbeat irregularities discovered before they turned fatal. An older man who fell but was rescued after his Watch called for help. A boy with autism who gained new focus running to fill in his rings.
These are real human stories. It's not a weakness to respond emotionally. And in large part, this is only new for Apple because it wasn't previously in the health care and medical research space before Apple Watch and HealthKit. iPod didn't save so many lives, but you can bet Jobs would have let people know about it if they had.
Nicas tweeted that the person next to him "cried during an Apple Watch ad." Sure enough, it was Ellen Cushing of The Atlantic. She tweeted in reply, "I was the crying reporter sitting next to Jack. I was crying because it's a video about people with disabilities overcoming challenges and also sometimes my face makes water whether I want it to or not??"
Steven Aquino, who writes for iMore and TechCrunch, added, "As a disabled person, and as a person whose parents were deaf, this video resonated with me so much." Many others responded similarly. In fact, who can watch such a spot and not be moved? I've never cried about Apple Watch itself (apart from the time I knocked my screen loose) but any video spot that involves somebody not dying— or living better— because of technology makes me automatically get choked up a bit. I'd really be a monster if it didn't.
When I fight off crying during an Apple keynote, it's not because I'm afraid of looking like an emotionally manipulated member of the media. It's only because it's hard to type when your eyes are all watery. If you're not feeling things, it doesn't mean you are a better journalist. It just indicates you may be an embittered writer without the compassion to really understand people and have empathy for the human condition enough to competently describe what's happening in the world around you.
To his credit, Nicas gave his original tweet some more consideration and added, "After just reading some replies and thinking on this more, I'll say my initial tweet was pretty crap. 1. I shouldn't generalize a whole group. 2. There's nothing wrong with crying at an emotional video, even if you're a journalist. Apologies."
Wouldn't it be nice if we could just observe what's going on in the tech industry as honestly as possible, calling attention to what's new and noteworthy while being cognizant of real-world problems without resorting to hyperbole and dramatic propaganda-twinged "reporting" that portrays Apple as this really terrible company just because it has a flair for dramatic reveals, beautiful cinematography, those catchphrases, the occasional dad joke, and tear-jerking videos that remind us of the fragility of life and celebrate that fact that technology can do something to strengthen us?
It's better to cry some real tears than to cry a phony river of cynicism.