An Apple Event in the Bizarro World

I’m going to do a “wow, you wouldn’t believe the dream I had last night” post, even though I regard those as the Brazils in the big jar of Blog Topics Mixed Nuts. I think you’ll agree why I’ve chosen to share this one.

It was an Apple keynote/media event. But one in the bizarro world, a strange dimension in which Apple is no good at running media events.

Clearly I’ve both a keen eye for what Apple does so well, and a clear memory of all of the awful media events I’ve been to in the past, hosted by other companies. The lowlights:

  • The check-in process was totally screwed up. One line for everyone and everything. A network camera crew could hold up the whole line because they need a spot in the TV pit and nobody behind the counter knows who has the list of approved media for that location.
  • The venue was a deep, narrow, flat room with a low ceiling, so it was practically impossible to see anything. There were a few live monitors scattered around, but you could barely see any of those, either.
  • The seating was all folding chairs and there weren’t quite enough to go around. So you kind of had to grab one wherever you could find one and move it to where you needed to be.
  • The event started super-late. If you milled around during the delay, it was likely that someone would steal your chair.
  • Tim Cook took the stage, but seemed to have been pushed out there without a rehearsed game plan or a specific message in mind. Phil Schiller and Craig Federighi came out along with him, but just sort of stood around sheepishly with nothing to do, making me wonder why they were out there.
  • A pointless appearance by the CEO of a company Apple was partnering with on a project. And it was via video.
  • The audio wasn’t working for the first ten minutes and they just pushed ahead instead of fixing it.
  • They also forgot to dim the house lights, so the audience’s focus was never 100% on the presentation.
  • They hired a celebrity pro wrestler (in his full ring costume and in character) to take part in a terrible little skit on the stage midway through.

I’m being awfully negative about Bizarro Apple here, so I’ll also say that the WiFi in the room was fast and rock-stable.

I’m sure that this was a dream triggered by my deep respect and gratitude for how well Apple does things, or a musing on how flying 3200 miles and losing 72 hours of productivity and spending $1000 to attend media events on the West coast might be more trouble than it’s worth. I decided to attend fewer of those events in 2015, and it seems to have worked out fine.

This definitely wasn’t one of those “o no its final exams and i never attended any of the classes and i have to write all of my test answers with a blade from a ceiling fan” dreams. The only Fail on Dream Andy’s part was bringing a terrible mobile keyboard for his iPad. It folded for pocket storage, but it wouldn’t lay flat, and the keys were mushy and terrible.

In fact, that’s what pulled me out of the dream. Even before I saw “Inception,” I noticed that my dreams usually end when something I see somehow gooses my rational brain back online. “This is impossible. Oh, wait…so this must be a dream, right?”

Still, it’s quite odd that the thing that took me out of the dream was “I had chosen to rely solely on an untested new mobile keyboard for live note-taking during an important event.” It wasn’t “Apple decided that the best way to introduce a new product would be for Tim Cook to talk about it with a pro wrestler in a huge feathered cape, reading everything awkwardly off of a prompter.”

I think this should give you an idea of just how bad some of the product introductions I’ve covered have been.

iPhone 4 Press Conference – The Post-Game Wrapup

Man seated inside a really weird blue antenna test chamber, holding a phone.
One of Apple's anechoic test chambers.

Okay, let’s start off with a roundup of links:

I think I said nearly everything I had to say in my Sun-Times piece. But my main goal was to get something useful online within the next hour or so, and my secondary goal was to beat my career high score for grammatically-correct sentences (28%). So maybe I can still add a few bits and pieces.

First, let’s see how well I did with my predictions this morning. I definitely got the broad strokes right. The prepared presentation was short. There was no product recall; Apple defended the iPhone, chiefly by offering hard numbers that indicate that the antenna problem — whatever it is — is being talked about far more than it’s actually being experienced by real users.

I didn’t think Apple would offer free bumper cases. I also thought Apple would give some airtime to all of the iPhone’s spiffy new features, making the point that the iPhone 4 is way more than just a radical new antenna design. But nope, they stayed on the message of the antenna.

I score myself a B+.

On the whole, I think Apple did great. I can’t get myself worked up about the antenna issue. I’m simply not seeing the widespread user complaints that I normally associate with a functional defect in a product. Nobody understands if it’s a design problem, a firmware issue, or just the same articulation of the old problem that all iPhones experience with AT&T coverage in spotty areas. I certainly don’t think it’s a big enough issue to forego all of the iPhone 4’s advantages. I don’t experience the issue when I hold it normally. Plus, when you slap it in any kind of case, the problem disappears entirely.

I do fault Apple for pressing the “all phones have this problem” button so hard. They showed video of several other phones losing signal when gorilla-gripped. Fine, but I experienced this issue with the iPhone 4 moments after unboxing it and I couldn’t reproduce it with other phones. It probably would have been smarter for Apple to simply note that all phones have “dead” spots, and then move on. Though I appreciate that it suits Apple’s purposes to have actual video of other phones losing signal

To Apple’s credit, they did acknowledge that the iPhone 4’s dropped-call percentage is higher than the iPhone 3GS’s, citing statistics they got from AT&T a few days ago. It seems like a marginal difference (it’s worse by one call in a hundred, according to Apple), but it’s definitely there. And if you live in a poor coverage area, the iPhone 4 can be the difference between a phone that rarely drops a call and one which does it frequently.

I’d also say that in retrospect, the post-presentation Q&A was a mistake. They should have deliverred their message, ended the show, and then sent everyone outside for complimentary coffee and danish. During the Q&A, Apple said a lot of things that seemed defensive. Nobody likes it when the prom queen complains that everyone hates her because she’s so very pretty and popular.

Jobs also complained about how the press has handled this story. He did make some valid points, though, and with fresh memories of the head of BP complaining that he “just wanted to get his life back,” I think it has to be kept in perspective.

(Steve did haul his ass away from a Hawaii vacation. Hell, he could have FaceTimed this one in.)

It was…interesting…that he described the publication of his emails to customers as “rude.” I suppose that could be true, on the basis that these people have been sharing his personal emails. But did he honestly expect people not to brag about getting a personal response from the CEO?

Onward:

Steve Jobs didn’t fall to his knees, rend his garment, clasp his hands together, and beg for forgiveness from users and stockholders.

This has upset many people.

These people are idiots.

Consumer Reports, for their part, hasn’t changed their position on the iPhone. They’re still “not recommending” the iPhone 4. I don’t think they’re idiots. But I do think they’re wrong. They’re pointing to antenna tests in which they can cause the iPhone 4’s signal to drop to zero bars by bridging the famous gap between the antennas.

Swell. That fact needs to be reported. But is that the whole story?

Questions:

  1. Does Consumer Reports understand the nature of the problem? They claim to have tested the antenna scientifically but haven’t (as far as I can tell) broken any new ground beyond “If you bridge the gap, you lose bars.” Is it a hardware issue? A software issue? A mere ergonomic issue?
  2. It’s a repeatable, reliable demo. But are iPhone users likely to encounter an actual problem? I did a 20-minute phone interview with PBS this afternoon and I did it on an uncased iPhone 4. I didn’t even think twice about it.
  3. Assuming that a specific consumer regarded the antenna problem as a dealbreaker: if there were a way around the problem, would the iPhone then be worthwhile? I say yes, absolutely. Take away “there’s a slightly greater chance that it might drop a call” and you’re left with a phone with a huge laundry list of advantages over every previous iPhone and most other phones. Including, might I point out, better reception than the iPhone 3GS.
  4. Is there a way around the problem? Yes. Put it in a case, which is something lots of people (myself included) were going to do anyway.

On that basis, I think Consumer Reports’ stance is extreme. Though in their defense, there’s a difference between “we’re not recommending it” and “we’re recommending that people not buy it.”

Reading their followup coverage, it appears that they can’t evaluate how well “iPhone with a case” works until they develop a separate test protocol; their standard test policy is to test the phone as-shipped by the manufacturer.

This is why I have occasional problems with Consumer Reports reviews. I think this is another instance in which the magazine is showing more loyalty to their standardized test procedures than to their readers.

Okay. So that’s another thousand words I’ve written about this thing today…on top of about 90 minutes of talking about it. I’ve done it.

And when I say “I’ve done it” I don’t mean “I’ve produced complete and thorough coverage of this interesting tech news story.” I mean “I am finally sick of hearing my own comments about the iPhone 4.” I hope I got there about 400 words ahead of the rest of you.

More, on the Buttafuoco Point

Peaceful image of a gorgeous beach.

Peaceful image of a gorgeous beach.

There were lots of neat replies to my previous post. There were so many good comments — not all of them positive — that I thought I’d elaborate:

I certainly have nothing against LeBron James, and I certainly don’t fault basketball fans for being interested in his announcement. You should be interested; following basketball is one of those things that gives you joy. It’s a favored pastime, it engages your intellect and your enthusiasm, and you like talking about this stuff with your friends.

I’m just as interested in news about the tech world (because that’s my job as well as a personal interest) and the comix world (because I’m simply a fan). I’m just as interested in news about Gail Simone’s next job or the poor bastard at Microsoft who greenlit the Kin as a basketball fan is in news about LeBron James’ next job. There’s nothing wrong with that; nothing at all.

The point is that there are certain stories — like “what’s LeBron’s next move?” — that somehow start off as news stories and become news products…and the electronic media sells (say) the Tiger Woods infidelity story just as competitively and aggressively as Coke and Pepsi sell colas. It’s something that news producers who work for TV and the Web have to struggle with. Viewer attention is both (a) fleeting and (b) very, very valuable. I think segment producers at CNN and FOX are just as sick of the latest Lindsay Lohan story as anybody else. But they know that if they don’t spend six minutes of every hour talking about it, viewers are going to turn to another channel that will.

Result: over-marketed stories that will follow you wherever you go for news.

There was a point when I simply became aware of how much time I was spending learning about stories that I had no interest in, and which couldn’t possibly influence my life in any way. I resented that I was being force-fed this useless information. If I wanted to watch a half-hour news program, I had to see three minutes of interviews with the judges at JonBenet Ramsey’s final beauty pageant and hear their opinions about how well she posed to “Achy-Breaky Heart.” That was the deal, it seemed.

The Buttafuoco shooting was the first time I sort of blinked hard and realized that I’m an idiot.

(Well, yes: I already knew I was an idiot, of course. Many people had been helpful enough to point that out to me. I just mean this was the first time I realized I was an idiot about this particular thing.)

As we so often do, I’d forgotten that (oh…right) I’m actually in control of my life. Instead of passively sitting through the next four minutes of speculation about Gary Coleman’s will, and complaining about how pointless it is, I could change the channel. It’s a pain in the butt, because the story’s only a few minutes’ long and the story after it might have been interesting and relevant to me. But it’s something that I can do.

Instead of thinking “I’m really not particularly interested in hearing about Mel Gibson’s latest Really Stupid Drunken Comment…but I’ve already read every other article in this copy of ‘People’, and the captain hasn’t said it’s OK for me to turn on my iPad yet,” I can choose to close the magazine and enjoy five minutes of peaceful thinking, without any distraction or visual stimulation.

The amount of background data noise that surrounds us has increased and intensified every year since the Buttafuoco Days. Can you remember a moment in the past 24 hours when you were completely free from outside stimulation? Is constant immersion in this kind of information like living under high-voltage power lines? Maybe we’ll have no idea of the damage this is doing to us until the damage becomes irreparable.

Redefine all of this unnecessary information as “distraction” and then ask yourself the question again. If you’re spending every waking moment distracting yourself…what are you distracting yourself from? What is your brain clamoring to tell you, if it were ever to get your full and complete attention?

An experiment: The next time you have a little time to kill and you instinctively go to your phone to launch your email client or your Twitter app or the web browser, launch the Clock app instead. Set a countdown timer for the amount of time you were going to spend in any of those activities (or ten minutes, whichever is shorter).

And then, put the phone in your pocket and do nothing until you hear the chime.

The thoughts that will come to you will probably be very surprising. Often, it’ll include thoughts that have been clamoring for your attention for days. And I’m not talking about reminders to pick up your dry cleaning, either.

I openly admit that when I was a lad and first I defined the Buttafuoco Point, it was a somewhat smug response to the inundation of needless media and noise. But at this point, I think of it as one of the most valuable user-installed upgrades to my life software.

I benefit far more from three minutes spent listening to my ceiling fan with my eyes closed than I do from the same amount of time spent reading about Lindsay Lohan’s dad’s reaction to her prison sentence.