How Apple can rekindle the magic of the Stevenote

Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

How can Apple craft a successful sequel to the Stevenote? Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

Nearly three years after Steve Jobs’ death, Apple’s keynotes have become pale imitations of their former glory. The last major keynote — November’s introduction of the iPad Air and Retina mini — was a major international snoozefest.

Utterly devoid of excitement, it served only to stoke the pervasive rumors of Apple’s lack of innovation after Jobs (which aren’t true, but nonetheless).

It’s time for Jony Ive to take over.

The so-called Stevenote — in which Jobs would reveal Apple’s latest, greatest creations to a room full of rabid fans and a select few members of the media — were carefully orchestrated and masterfully executed. After months of anticipation and rumors, Jobs would take the stage to joyfully pierce the veil of Apple’s vaunted secrecy.

These rare peeks inside the Apple idea vault proved extremely effective, driving news outlets, stock analysts and Apple fans into a frenzy. Other corporate giants have mimicked the Stevenote — think Marvel’s marvelous Hall H reveals at Comic-Con International — but nobody can pull the strings like Jobs did.

Now Apple needs to think different about the format. Jobs’ famous keynotes were dreamed up in the 1980s by the company’s former CEO John Sculley. A marketing expert, he envisioned the product announcements as “news theater,” a show put on for the press. The idea was to stage an event that the media would treat as news, generating headlines for whatever product was introduced. News stories, of course, are the most valuable advertising there is.

“Marketing, after all, is really theater,” Sculley wrote in his autobiography Odyssey. “It’s like staging a performance. The way to motivate people is to get them interested in your product, to entertain them, and to turn your product into an incredibly important event.”

Jobs perfected the art of “news theater” like no other. Over the years, he turned his trademark “one more thing” speeches into huge international news events, covered by everyone from CNN to the BBC.

Jobs made them exciting. He could make even the most mundane product seem revolutionary. Sitting in the audience at Macworld, I’ve seen the press corps — who try very hard to retain an air of professional indifference — shoot to their feet and applaud wildly at some announcement.

The keynote format worked great for Jobs, who had amazing charisma and magnetism, but it has become tired and lackluster under the present crew, which will presumably take the stage again during Monday morning’s keynote at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco. Tim Cook talks like a stroke victim on Ambien. At last fall’s tedious iPad Air event even Phil Schiller, the usually bubbly head of marketing, came across like a bored-shitless robot.

The highlight of the show was rising star Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering. A natural comic with an easygoing style, he cracked the best jokes and made fun of his own luxuriant locks (calling himself Hair Force One).

But the more these guys try to emulate Jobs’ mix of insight, humor and excitement, the worse it gets. They were obviously over-rehearsed — and terrified of screwing things up. They delivered their lines like marionettes, ensuring that any excitement got bleached out and nearly every joke fell flat.

What’s the obvious but unlikely ingredient to spice up this weak soup? Jony Ive. As Apple’s head designer, he usually shows up in video clips, talking about the design challenges of Apple’s latest creation.

But, despite his lack of love for the spotlight, it’s time he took over live-presenting duties.

After all, Ive is now the most important person at the company. He has taken over Jobs’ role overseeing both hardware and software. Even though Cook is the CEO, Ive is Apple’s creative lead, the product guru who has assumed Jobs’ mantle as chief visionary and guiding light.

Cook minds the day-to-day, making sure the trains run on time and the factories and stores are clicking over. Meanwhile, Ive and his design team create groundbreaking new products in Apple’s super-secretive Industrial Design studio, just as they always did. It’s basically the same arrangement as when Jobs was alive: Cook ran the boring (but essential) everyday operations, freeing Jobs to spend most of his time with Ive at the studio.

Like Jobs, Ive has the charisma and presence to pull off a Stevenote, plus a sense of humor.

Just watch Ive pay tribute to his old friend Steve at Apple’s memorial event for its fallen leader.

The company critically needs a new persona. Jobs was very successful at personally embodying everything Apple stood for. In the late 1970s, it was revolution through technology. Later it was about being creative, thinking different. Jobs’ personality allowed Apple to market itself as human, and cool. He conveyed Apple as an icon of change, revolution and bold thinking.

Now the company is in danger of having Hair Force One become the face of Apple if it doesn’t revamp its approach to keynotes.

The best format for the Stevenote sequels would be to let Ive give an honest and revealing look at the design decisions behind the products — even the software. It would be similar to his videos, but live and in-person.

For an example of what that would look like, just watch one of Ive’s rare live keynote appearances, like this one from 2008’s MacBook Air event. He’s talking about the unibody manufacturing process, in which the MacBook’s shell is carved from a solid piece of aluminum. Talk of machining processes would normally put you to sleep, but I found Ive’s presentation fascinating. (Scroll to the 10-minute mark for the really great stuff.)

Ive is an engaging and fascinating speaker, especially in person. His tendency to talk designer doublespeak disappears when conversing with him face-to-face. A few years ago, he gave me a tour of one of Apple’s computers, and he was amazingly straightforward and clear. But most of all he was passionate: He was geeking out. Ive loves to design and make things, and his passion and enthusiasm is incredibly infectious.

Jobs was a great spokesman because he was Apple’s No. 1 fan. He talked about products onstage like an enthusiast. He came across as someone who had just unboxed a new iPhone and was showing it to his friends, delighted by the new product’s amazing capabilities.

All it would take to regain some of that lost excitement would be to unleash Jony Ive. Allow him to tell the world his story — the story of how the latest Apple products were conceived and created.

It would be the ultimate Stevenote sequel, and I guarantee it would prove irresistible.

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About the author

Leander KahneyLeander Kahney is the editor and publisher of Cult of Mac. He is the NYT bestselling author of Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple's Greatest Products; Inside Steve’s Brain; Cult of Mac; and Cult of iPod. Leander has written for Wired, MacWeek, Scientific American, and The Guardian in London. Follow Leander on Twitter @lkahney and Facebook.

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