A big Apple keynote has, essentially, just two components: a big product-oriented advertising spectacle that’s meticulously planned and produced, plus a state of the union that addresses the company itself and how it wants to be seen. Typically, that state of the union is a victory lap of big, impressive sales numbers. But today, more so than at any other event in recent memory, Apple wants you to see the company less as gadget maker and more as a powerful, benevolent, world-shaping force.
Apple events have a reputation for being almost cruelly long. The company takes its time, completely controlling the technology and even mainstream news cycles for hours on end. A parade of senior executives focus painstakingly on the smallest technical updates, milking applause lines for features like 802.11ac Wi-Fi compatibility.
Today was different from the very first minute. Apple CEO Tim Cook took the stage and, after a brief mention of the company’s upcoming 40-year anniversary, dove right into the company's most pressing issue: a national security and privacy fight against the FBI.
“We need to decide as a nation how much power the government should have over our data and over our privacy,” he said, sounding more like a trial lawyer giving closing arguments than a CEO at a press conference (Apple’s trial against the FBI begins tomorrow).
Though the crowd was gathered to get a look at a new iPhone, Cook was more interested in emphasizing what the product has come to mean and the role it has assumed in our lives. “It is a deeply personal device,” he said. “For many of us, the iPhone is an extension of ourselves.”
This is all somewhat heady territory to kick off an event that can usually best be described as gadget porn.
It didn’t stop there. The keynote segued into a comprehensive review of Apple’s plans to reduce its environmental impact: how it’s building solar farms in China that don’t disturb indigenous yak populations; how it’s using previously recycled paper from sustainably managed forests for packaging; how it built a cute and slightly terrifying robot named Liam that disassembles and strips down old Apple hardware in order to recycle it into new factory parts. The company went over its programs in detail using words like “responsibility” and “impact.” It wasn’t sexy — it was serious.
Putting the gadgets further on hold, Apple went into its health initiatives, touting the success of HeathKit and ResearchKit to “use apps to create a better life.” The company played video testimonials for a set of research apps it helped to roll out this fall with major hospitals that can aid in diagnosing autism, detect seizures, and screen for skin cancer. It announced an app that can help with research for Parkinson’s patients and help them manage their illness. Big, bold initiatives that are looking to transform the future medical research and, as one researcher said during the keynote, “lay the foundation to transform care.”
Eventually the gadgets arrived — roughly 30 minutes into the one-hour event.
Today Apple’s victory lap was less concerned with messaging about the company’s bottom line and far more centered around big, benevolent initiatives like saving the planet and saving lives. You already know we’re the biggest company in the world, but did you know we’re trying to save it, too?
This kind of messaging is particularly important given tomorrow’s landmark hearing, in which the FBI wants to compel Apple to unlock the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone. In its very public feud with Apple, the FBI has tried to paint Apple’s privacy crusade as little more than a marketing tactic. Today was, in many ways, Apple’s opening argument.
Using the gravitational pull of its events with media, Apple convened a sizable audience (just for fun: how many regular people do you suppose will tune in to watch tomorrow’s trial as opposed to today’s keynote?) to get the first word and send a clear message: We’re out here trying to do the right thing.
Just as there’s a good case to be made that Apple’s most important product in the smartphone era is now privacy, there’s more than a little merit to the idea that today’s keynote was, for the first time, not really about the gadgets. The unusual ordering and pacing of today’s event wasn’t a mistake or an admission of a weak new product cycle, nor was it an admission that keynotes have grown too long and self-important. Instead it was advancing an argument that, now more than ever, the gadgets themselves aren't as important as what Apple "stands for," which includes curing Parkinson’s.
In a Bloomberg story from this morning, there’s a quote from Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey praising Apple’s vision. “Apple is run like a theater company,” the quote reads. “It has a great sense of pacing. It has a great sense of story.”
He’s right. And Apple’s great sense of story is one of a few reasons so many of us stop what we’re doing and pay attention to these events. This time, though, the story Apple wants you to remember isn't what it is making — it's how what it made is defining and reshaping our world.