A rag-tag fugitive fleet on a lonely quest…
There’s a delicate balance to Stevenote expectations. The hype drives us all to pursue every shred of information leaking out about the big day, right up to mere moments before Jobs takes the stage. The rumors, the patent filing, the retail store stock levels, the blurry photos of black-cloaked signs—it’s all part of the experience. As a community, we’ve gotten extremely good at this sort of thing, leading to an ever-increasing frenzy before each keynote. But, tragically, the better we are at sussing out the details of the upcoming event, the more likely we are to be underwhelmed when it’s over.
Over the past few years, this has made for increasingly disappointing keynote experiences. In fact, this disappointment has actually become a well-known part of the milieu. Are we destined to continue down this path, getting more and more excited before each show, learning of almost every announcement before it’s made, then being disappointed by how the real products and the scant few actual surprises measure up to our feverish imaginings? How did it come to this?
If I had to pick a turning point, I’d say it was the move to Intel. At a stroke, that move removed the two biggest remaining sources of fanatical fervor and juicy secrets (that actually stayed secret). By going to Intel, Apple eliminated the “us vs. them” struggle for hardware power supremacy. And since Intel’s product roadmap is public, there’s no longer any mystery about the performance characteristics of upcoming high-end Apple computers.
Don’t underestimate the importance of these two factors. Hardcore benchmark-based bragging rights have always trumped the more touchy-feely debates about ease of use and “elegance.” The mysterious PowerPC designs of the past kept us all guessing right up to the last minute, despite our best efforts. But even more importantly, the potential for future hardware supremacy and the idea of the next totally unknown CPU helped buoy us after even the most disappointing Macworld and WWDC keynotes.
These days, all we’re left with is fashion. We pretty much know what will be in the next Mac. The only surprise is the form factor. Sadly, even that area has stagnated recently due to Apple’s insistence on making the Intel transition while holding the case designs steady (presumably to instill some sense of stability during what might be viewed as a risky hardware transition). We’re coming out of that now, but even a new case with every revision of a product can’t replace the one-two punch of an all-new form factor combined with a potentially game-changing advance in hardware power.
Thankfully, a new contender for keynote joy is coming on strong: software, particularly interface design. The Aqua introduction was as powerful as any past hardware reveal (the original iMac and the G5 being the two most potent), and the iPhone has effectively repeated the performance, albeit for a more “mass market” audience. (Yes, that’s code for “phone weenies” again.)
But we all knew the iPhone was coming. Apple even used our name for it. So while the software side was as impressive as ever, the hardware was not a surprise on par with the iMac (which we all thought was a set-top box code-named Columbus) or even the G5 (which leaked a few days early but was so fantastic that many still couldn’t bring themselves to believe the leak). Besides, there’s really no unified “them” for us to position ourselves against in the phone market.
So here we are again, with MWSF 2008 looming. Do you feel like you know pretty much everything that will be announced, plus or minus a few surprises that won’t be all that interesting to you anyway? (“Starbucks + WiMAX: Stimulants any time, anywhere!™”) I know I do, and it’s a feeling I’ve had for the past few keynotes. If I let myself get any more optimistic, I’ll just be that much more disappointed in the end.
This leads me to one inevitable conclusion: an upcoming keynote is going to blow us all away. Maybe not this one, maybe not the next one, but soon. Why? Because we’re ready, and we’re due.
Years of inflated expectations and subsequent disappointments have worn down our childlike enthusiasm. We’re more guarded now, more cynical. The continually reinforced idea that we all know pretty much what Apple is planning (LCD iMac, video iPod, headless Mac, Apple phone, movie rentals, Mac model XYZ is due for a revision…) has made us ripe for something out of left field. (I mean something we’ll immediately cheer, not another Intel-like bombshell.) Finally, the iPhone and other consumer electronic products bring us back towards a world where the product roadmaps of component vendors are either secret (i.e., custom chips made under contract for Apple) or they reveal nothing of Apple’s product plans.
Don’t get me wrong, my guard’s still up for Tuesday. A subnotebook, WiMAX everywhere, 3G iPhones, Apple as cellular carrier, a giant iPod Touch, dockable Macs, more content for sale and electronic distribution, Apple TV, Apple-branded TVs…I feel like there’s no room for true surprises and a near guarantee of disappointment (all the rumors can’t be true, after all) despite what are sure to be at least a few great products. But it’s coming: a keynote to end all keynotes and begin them anew, a keynote like the keynotes of old. All of this has happened before. All of this will happen again.
This article originally appeared at Ars Technica. It is reproduced here with permission.