Once, the launch of a new iPhone was a fulcrum around which my work calendar pivoted. A launch like that of the iPhone 14 last week would dictate the shape of the week, and not just because at least one member of the tech team had to be in San Francisco to cover it.
Even at the peak of its importance, it was a delicate dance. Each new iteration of the bestselling smartphone in the world is clearly an important event in the sector. New features and capabilities announced by Steve Jobs and, later, Tim Cook, can make or break billion-dollar industries overnight.
At the same time, the event is an advert: an hours-long, lavishly produced advert intended to incept a desire to acquire. That became particularly true in recent years: Apple has increasingly focused less on the press conference aspect of the event in favour of producing it as a direct-to-consumer livestream, a trend that reached its culmination with the Covid-induced cancellation of the live event. The slick prerecorded videos that resulted communicate less information than ever before but seem to be no less effective at selling phones.
As a result, the Guardian’s focus on the event has waned in concert with our readers’. In part, we just can’t compete: liveblogs used to be the only way for news junkies to learn what was happening on stage. Now, the best service we can provide is condensing the 90-minute event into a few hundred words for people who care a bit but not enough to watch the whole shebang.
Fear the inevitable
If that’s you, don’t worry. You didn’t miss much.
Phones are a mature product with fewer and fewer opportunities for unexpected breakthroughs. It’s been five years since the Guardian’s consumer technology editor Samuel Gibbs wrote that “smartphones are boring now”, and his words have aged well:
One smartphone is the same as the next. It has a camera, a screen, it plays music, runs apps and games, shoves the internet in the palm of your hand and forms a conduit for all your life to flow through. But if you broke it and bought a new one, it would do more or less exactly the same, perhaps in a dazzling new colour.
You may still use an iPhone you had when Sam wrote that piece. The iPhone 7, released six months earlier, will finally stop receiving software updates this week, alongside the launch of iOS 16.
Taken as a whole, the difference between the iPhones released last week and the iPhone 7 is large. The phones are faster, the cameras are better, the screens are bigger and better looking, and fingerprint sensors have been replaced with facial recognition. But since the iPhone X was introduced in 2017, there has not been a sweeping change to the line. The steady march of progress enriches us all, but it doesn’t make for compelling television.
To Apple’s credit, the most recent launch seemed to acknowledge that. The company spent less time than it has in the past trying to excite viewers about incremental changes.
It helped that there were a couple of genuine leaps. The introduction of the “dynamic island” on the iPhone Pro devices is the first change to the front of the iPhone in half a decade, and an update that wasn’t spoiled by leaks. It is a canny software tweak that turns the black “pill” containing the cameras into a UI element that embraces rather than dismisses the visual intrusion – a great example of what the company does right, and a fun surprise for those of us who were watching live.
But the more interesting set of announcements, to me, were those focusing on the iPhone and Apple Watch’s safety features. The Apple Watch launch began with a montage of first-person letters written by people whose lives had been saved by the Watch, when the device did everything from detect heart attacks to call emergency services.
That video – hopefully performed by actors, because otherwise Apple asked a bunch of users to act out a re-creation of the most traumatic days of their lives to sell watches? – led into a new feature coming to the phones and watches: crash detection. Your device can now call emergency services automatically if you’re in a car crash, using a combination of gyroscopic, audio and behavioural data to ensure it triggers at the right time.
The company’s latest iPhones have an even more technically impressive offering: “emergency SOS via satellite”, which will let users – initially in North America – get help even when they have no mobile signal, guiding them through the process of setting out the critical details and then finding and pointing their phone’s directional antenna directly at the best-placed communications satellite.
The focus on death and catastrophe has been mocked by some. “Today we saw Apple’s vision of a future where everything is literally trying to murder us, and death lurks around every ring-closing outdoor jog,” wrote BuzzFeed’s Katie Notopolous. There’s certainly a reading of the event that plays into that view: “Buy this or you’ll die” has a long and storied history in advertising.
But I’m more hopeful. I think the company has recognised that – at least when it comes to hardware – there’s not anything more it can do to solve everyday problems. Rather than continuing to fetishise faster phones with better cameras, it’s going the opposite direction: trying to solve problems that happen rarely but are serious when they do.
It’s not going to make me any more likely to resume the liveblogs, but if it could save a life, that’s a good trade-off, right?