The Glare of the Spotlight Keeps Apple From Dazzling Us
By dint of its sheer size and popularity, Apple's corporate identity is in conflict. Notoriously secretive yet subject to endless speculation and probing for answers, Apple may finally have reached the point at which it is no longer capable of surprising its myriad constituencies.
Apple's invitation to media professionals made the date official, but September 12 has been the likely date for the company's iPhone 5 rollout event for more than a month. Did that date come from supposition or an outright leak? Doesn't matter. Industry consensus knows that Apple traditionally has an iPod and iTunes sort of announcement in September -- have to get ready for the holiday selling season -- and the iPhone 5 had better show up, too, or the post-Steve Jobs Apple might suddenly shift from a scary rival to simply a mortal company.
Tradition and market forces dominated by the holiday selling season is one thing, but Apple has clearly morphed into a new company altogether. In just a few short years, it seems, Apple has gone from the general technology underdog with a few hit products to a supergiant gadget seller (iPhone), industry transformer (music, movies, TV, PCs a la the iPad), and revenue engine (stockholders, iOS developers).
Apple has become so big and influential that I'm starting to fear that the company can't possibly surprise us anymore.
Follow the Money, Follow the Hearts
There are two issues with Apple's new identity -- and both issues conspire against secrecy and surprise. The first is the sheer scope of money Apple pushes around. There are investors who want answers; iOS developers getting into bed with Apple and hoping to strike it rich and supply chain players who must produce parts for Apple's insanely popular products.
All of these sorts of people are walking leaks. Investors get access to Apple where Apple says things or implies things or accidentally lets body language do the talking. Case in point? After meeting with Apple executives last month, Pacific Crest analyst Andy Hargreaves reportedly sent a note to his investors saying that an Apple television would likely not show up any time soon.
Leak, accident, or savvy people reading skills from Hargreaves? Doesn't matter. Even a note to paying customers from an analyst somehow makes its way to the web and becomes big news.
So no surprises are likely in store for us when it comes to a big shiny new HDTV Apple TV.
As for developers, these pros get early access to Apple operating system code, and sometimes that operating system code seems to imply new products or features. Case in point? An error message displayed in iOS 6 beta code for Apple TV suggests now suggests that the Apple TV will support an iBooks app. Mildly interesting, but either way, the surprise is gone.
As for following the heart, Apple now has hundreds of millions of fans -- staggering numbers of people who use Apple products every day. Many of them are ardent fans, lusting after upgrades, skipping generations of iPhones and patiently waiting for the next release. As for me, I'm ready to ditch my iPhone 4 for the iPhone 5. Of course I gobble up every rumor. Of course I try to puzzle out what features I'll get. Of course I'll come up with 10 new features and get most of them wrong. But the ones I get right ... like a larger screen, which Apple can't possibly not deliver, won't be particularly surprising. Or delightful.
This insatiable demand from Apple enthusiasts for news, rumors, and illicit photos has driven a whole industry around Apple minutiae. One rumor I recently read says the front-facing camera on the iPhone 5 will be centered above the speaker for your ear. Nice. Small detail. I like symmetry. But now even that won't be surprising. Other rumors point out a metal case back and a similar form factor to today's iPhone 4S. Makes sense. The design is solid. No need to get wild. It fits in your pant pocket and you can text with one hand. It will sell well and give Apple design maestro Jonathan Ive time to (maybe) surprise us with the next generation of iPhone.
So many people are now following -- or are at least aware of -- Apple's product cycles that the iPhone 4S has plummeted in sales pending the anticipated new release that Apple hasn't even confirmed.
Not Just the iPhone
This insane focus on Apple spills into other products as well. How can you know when a new generation of iMac might appear? Step one, puzzle out the processor roadmap. If Intel has new desktop-class processors, the iMac will get a refresh somewhere near that availability. Still, how to narrow it down? Check retail outlet supply. If sellers of iMacs seem to be getting fewer and fewer units to sell, that signals a drawdown of inventory so new inventory can fill its place.
Instead of some random, idle checks when someone wasn't busy, bloggers and analysts are checking this stuff all the time. Crazy.
The difference now, though, is that it's really hard to avoid the crush of Apple information. Major not so techie news outlets are covering Apple rumors, too.
How about the rumored 7-inch class mini iPad? Apple doesn't have a chance to surprise us here because Apple watchers have been anticipating this form factor for months and months. There's so much heat around this new (rumored) device that -- even though Apple has been wickedly quiet about it -- there's pretty much nothing that Apple can reveal next week that will surprise. Perhaps the biggest surprise will come if Apple waits until October to reveal it ahead of the holiday sales season. That's hardly a surprise at all, really.
Could the late Steve Jobs, who was notoriously secretive and valued the big reveal above all, manage to keep a lid on all this surprise-busting digging and supposition today?
Hard to say.
In the next few days, we'll be blasted with Web stories and blog posts listing the likely expectations of Wednesday's event. Some will be wrong, but all the bases will be covered. And when the possible options are all covered, surprise, really Apple-loving surprise ... is hard to come by.
But I'm still hoping. I hope the "One More Thing" surprise is still thriving at Apple.