The model for a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Every time a tech company has a new idea that it believes will rock our world, it rolls out the red carpet, pours the drinks, and bangs the drums... but doesn't tell us what it is
In 1984, a young guy with a bowtie and long hair stood in front of a large audience in California, and made the pitch of his life. He was trying to persuade the people in front of him that the innovation they were about to see was going to change the world, and so he tried for a sense of drama. "All of the images you're about to see on the large screen will be generated by what's in that bag," he said. Then Steve Jobs revealed the first Macintosh, and the crowd went wild.
Thirty years later, the basic model of revelation hasn't changed much. But it's been refined a little bit. These days, when Apple and its competitors are ready to launch a new project on the world, they do their best to cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement. The invitations for their next event, at the same venue where Jobs gave that big speech, are emblazoned with the date "9.9.2014" writ large, and then the tease: "Wish we could say more." We are supposed to feel titillated, intrigued, inspired.
To be honest, none of these is among my top three preliminary responses. My main thought was, wish you could say more? No you don't. No government agency has barred you from revealing the details of your next assault on the market. If you wanted to say more, you could just get on with it, and spare us two insufferable, orgiastic weeks of expectation and rumour.
Steve Jobs launches the 1984 Macintosh Sadly, Apple's agenda is somewhat different from mine. And so the circus goes on. This time, it's supposed to be about the next iteration of the iPhone and a new iWatch, but it's always the same. Every time a tech company has a new idea that it firmly believes will rock our world – such as Google Wave, say, or Blackberry's PlayBook (What are they? Exactly) – it rolls out the red carpet, pours the drinks, and bangs the drums. As a matter of commerce this is probably sensible. But cumulatively, as a matter of public culture, it is an unedifying pageant of consumerism, and I wish it would stop.
Just as the US press starts speculating about candidates for the next presidency the day after the election of the current one, the cycle of product rumours starts early. First we get the wish lists, the artists' impressions of whatever imaginary gizmo has become desirable. (Google Glass, the putative iWatch, and the general trend for wearable technology makes me wonder when we'll be seeing the Microsoft Nosering.) We are told that the company in question is playing its cards close to its chest. Then, gradually, those who are interested in such matters start to build up a picture of what the new new thing might be.
Steve Jobs (iPad2, 2011) Executives speak off the record, like spin-doctors with a policy to sell. Workers further down the food chain start sneaking photographs and descriptions of various components. If we're lucky, some hapless engineer will leave one of the treasured items in a coffee shop, and everyone will coo over it. And then the launch will happen, neither accelerated nor derailed by a cyclone of supposition.
Parents who choose to know the gender of their child early can do something with the information: buy the appropriate coloured booties, should they so regressively choose, or adjust their dreams of raising a millionaire footballer or supermodel as appropriate. But reading, as you do on the pre-eminent source of this sort of stuff, MacRumors, that new "high-quality photos" of the next iPhone reveal a "rear shell with colored bands", what possible application can such information have? Perhaps you have been considering the purchase of some coloured bands to apply to your own rear shell, and the possibility of a clash will give you pause. This aside, it is hard to see the point.
Last year, MacRumors' editor, Eric Slivka, told The Independent's Simon Usborne that his biggest scoop was news about the type of screen in prospect for the next iPad: "With the display in hand, we were able to put some basic microscopy on it to confirm the pixel density," he said. Well, it's worth a lot of clicks. But it's not exactly Watergate.
Peter Chou (Google Nexus One phone, 2010) Why, then, are so many people so ravenous for information? Partly it's the canny code of secrecy, a version of the same thing that makes you fancy the person who doesn't text you back: when someone won't give you something, you immediately feel it must be worth more. But I suspect there's another grim layer to the psychology. In an era of gamified instant communication – the accumulation of "retweets" and "likes" from your followers and friends – information has become a more instantly tradable commodity: it is not dumped in large quantities by experts but circulated at high speed, so that anyone can take a share of the spoils by the simple means of passing it along, by building up their own stockpile of half-truths and recycled expertise. Information used to be power. Now it's a possession.
Anyway, the great day comes. Technology journalists descend on California, supplicants to an oracle, attracting vast readerships for play-by-play analysis of a pre-arranged event with no internal tension that might instead be explained in one easily digestible, considered account a couple of hours later. A spotlight settles on Bill Gates's nostril, and Nosering 1.0 is unveiled. The assembled enthusiasts dutifully applaud. The game is changed, we're told.
A couple of hours later, as overnight queues of whooping morons form at the hi-tech piercing centre, the first pundits start wondering what will come next. Should you be an early adopter? Well, it's a tough one, they explain. If you can wait six months, Nosering 1.1 will be available, and it's apparently going to be a lot more resistant to snot.
Thorsten Heins, and Alicia Keys (BlackBerry 10, 2013) Perhaps, in nine days' time, we'll have one of the launches that really do amaze, if that's possible after so much prior warning. Even if that is so, I'm not sure the amazement is for the best. It's certainly true that smartphones have transformed our lives, but it's also true that a lot of this stuff doesn't, really. And while Steve Jobs was right when he said that "a lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them", we should beware of misunderstanding his point.
Often, that line is understood as evidence of his prophetic status. But it's worth remembering who else makes that kind of observation a lot: advertisers. Sometimes technology is a miracle. But sometimes, as Mr Jobs understood, it's just another way of selling you stuff you hadn't realised you need.
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