Friday, June 08, 2012

Grating expectations and clickbait

I would never call you normal. I hope you know that. But I do have this image of you as being sensible. A little. So, for instance, I don't picture you having one of your RSS feeds devoted to news about Apple.

I mean, who would do that?

You also wouldn't queue up from five in the morning to buy an iPhone but there I'm going to have to tell you that I have done exactly that. And it was a blast. Such a good time. It was five in the morning so maybe I won't rush to do it again, but I definitely now understand how delicious it is rabbiting on with people you've never met before and will never meet again. The things people tell me.

There was no great need to use the word 'iPhone' in that last. You knew it was Apple. Partly because you know me but also because people do this with Apple releases.

Microsoft could have the same thing. But it tends to do these huge midnight openings to shift world-changing software that we've already got. You do get more of a will-it/won't-it excitement with Microsoft as you plug the thing in and surely this time it'll work. Somehow I'm immune to that. Can't understand why.

If you get it, you get it, and if you don't, you don't. It'd be dull if everybody agreed on everything. (I once told Alan Plater that I thanked God I didn't share even a fraction of his interest in football because otherwise we agreed on absolutely everything.) But forget that it's Apple and forget that it happens: I have thought a lot about this as drama. Apple's producing products rather than stories but it's getting an audience.

You'd imagine it must be harder to get an audience excited about a piece of aluminium than it is, I don't know, a theatre piece or a film. Certainly there aren't many firms that manage it and most don't manage it for long: you are unlikely to be fussed now about Sony's next offering. (Though, really, that's their own fault: they showed me a demo of the House of the Future once and I had to tell them, I already lived there. And my house works.)

The problem with building this audience is that you build expectation too. Each new Apple release must be not just as transformative as the iPhone, the Mac, the iPod, the iPad and the iTunes Store but be unexpectedly as transformative. 

There's an Apple event next week, the Worldwide Developers Conference, WWDC. By volume, the event is meant for the developers in its title: if you are one, you get to learn about APIs that matter to you and talk to Apple engineers about what API stands for. But I think the event runs for the week and all that anyone really cares about anymore is the opening 90 minutes.

It's where Steve Jobs used to make a lot of his presentations. It helped that he was a fascinating presenter in an industry which doesn't have that many of them. Microsoft's Steve Ballmer is a Del Boy yard sale caricature, for instance. And it helped that he used to often do a Columbo-like "One more thing" at the end of the 90 minutes and introduce something big.

You can learn a lot of stagecraft from those presentations and if I ever write a theatre piece that's a one-person monologue with a product at the end and a turtleneck throughout, I'm sorted.

There is no Steve Jobs at next week's WWDC and there is no information whatsoever about what Apple will release or announce. (Those do tend to be synonyms with Apple: where Microsoft will often boast about how great it's products are going to be next year, in five years, in ten years, Apple just loves ending a presentation with the words "available today".)

Apple never says what it's going to announce. But if you were to just happen to have an RSS feed on Apple news, you would be reading hundreds of articles revealing exactly what is coming and what it will all look like. The articles are predominantly bollocks, though some are persuasively written, and they routinely feature Photoshopped images of what the new Apple products will look like.

Like this, for instance. I knocked this up just now.

On the left, the current as-of-today 27in iMac. On the right, the new one that will definitely, definitely, definitely perhaps be announced next week and look exactly, exactly, exactly maybe like that. If you can't see the difference, you plainly aren't used to Apple fan sites that show you pixel- and millimetre-differences between items and I am shocked at you.

I will tell you this: I am in the market for an iMac and I won't buy one until after next Monday's announcements. But beyond that, I'm not expecting any particular thing and I'm trying to ignore the news.

Looking at this as a writer, though, I think there is something new this time. We should all have Apple's problems of living up to audience expectations, but I believe the company has tried something new.

About ten days ago, these unofficial Apple sites were proving that there will be a new iMac that costs 4 pence and comes with a 50-foot Retina display. That there would be MacBook Airs that wrote your scripts for you. That the next iPhone would have an optional teleport add-on. They'll run Windows too but Windows as you've never seen it. Working.

And then someone leaked a shot of a box.

Someone in the big, remarkably secretive Apple supply chain, released a photo of the specs written on the back of a MacBook box. The world gasped.


The world of unofficial Apple news sites gasped.

Because the specs had no interplanetary features, nothing was made of absurdium, lives would not be saved by what amounted to a little speed bump since the last MacBook release.

I think Apple leaked it.

I've no justification, I've no secret source, I just think it. Last year there was an extremely successful launch of the iPhone 4S yet the perception is that the event was a disappointment. Again, no teleportation. I'm surprised to say I was disappointed too. If I hadn't still been in contract I would've bought the 4S but mostly because it would be better than the rather damaged little iPhone 4 I've been limping along with. 

But the iPhone 4S looks the same as the iPhone 4. I think it's a bit depressing when news outlets believe people only buy a new iPhone so that they can show off that they have it but that's what a consensus was: why would you buy a new one if it doesn't look different?

This is about more than the audience leaving the launch show shrugging. Apple's stock was damaged by it. Given that Apple has more money than the US government, it can cope. But it intrigues me that unfounded expectations (and the rise of click-bait headlines in news articles that contain no news) leads directly to noticeable, measurable consequences.

So this time, out pops this Apple MacBook image with barely any change to the specifications. For a good hour, that was it: this year's WWDC was no longer going to be where we get alien first contact, it was going to be rubbish.

Suddenly anything Apple did launch next week would be better than expectations. It was a terrific move.

Except they probably did it too early. Because now everybody's back with absolute proof of new Apple gear. I believe some of it. But everything is so lost in opinion pieces, er, like this one, with mockup shots of products, er, like this one.

But this is the only one that looked at the expectation from a drama point of view. I think it's also the only one to have clickbait in the title so you knew what you were getting. 

It is definitely not the only one that gives you no information, has no value and exists only to ask whether you fancy queuing up outside the WWDC hall at five o'clock next Monday morning.


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