The Last Apple Keynote (Hopefully)

Roughly six minutes into Apple’s annual keynote presentation on Tuesday, I watched with grim fascination as a video game executive guided a digital frog across a bathroom floor in order to carefully avoid scraps of rogue toilet paper, while a second executive provided breathless color commentary.

“Whoa, what is that?” Executive Two whooped. “Is that a giant baby wearing sunglasses?! He’s making quite a mess!” (It was a giant baby; he was being quite messy).

The tightly choreographed scene was a demo of an iPad reboot of the classic “Frogger” game, which Apple was teasing as an example of its new arcade gaming platform. It was also a tidy example of just how peculiar and out of touch the company’s product unveilings have become. And why Apple needs to put an end to its 90-plus minute advertising spectacles.

The evolution of the Apple keynote is understandable. Apple is a global company that changed computing by putting little ones in all our pockets. Their new phones are big deals by virtue of the fact that they’ve sold more than 2.2 billion iOS devices since their debut in 2007. iPhones changed how we communicate with each other and seek information; they’ve addicted us, tethering us to our jobs and helping us feel both attached to and alienated from one another. So it makes sense that we pay attention when the company dreams up a new iteration. Plus, they’re exceedingly shiny and the cameras can turn any point-and-click amateur taking photos of their goofy dog (me!) into Annie Leibovitz.

But what started as a Steve Jobs TED Talk has become a parody — a decadent pageant of Palo Alto executives, clothed in their finest Dad Casual, reading ad copy as lead-ins for vaguely sexual jump-cut videos of brushed aluminum under nightclub lighting. The events are exhausting love letters to consumerism complete with rounds of applause from the laptop-lit faces of the tech blogging audience when executives mention that you (yes you!) can hold the future in your hands for just $24.95 per month or $599 with trade-in.

The entire event is at odds with our current moment — one in which inequality, economic precarity and populist frustration have infiltrated our politics and reshaped our relationships with once-adored tech companies. But it’s not just the tech backlash. When the world feels increasingly volatile and fragile, it feels a little obscene to gather to worship a $1,000 phone. Serving journalists pastries topped with gold leaf doesn’t do much to help either.

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Apple, for its part, has chosen not to read the room, and so the discordant moments accumulate. While employees at Microsoft and Amazon organize walkouts over their companies’ contributions to carbon emissions, Apple executives are adding applause lines touting that the iPad’s case is made of 100 percent recycled aluminum — a fact that tech journalists rightly note “means essentially nothing.” And, as Motherboard’s Jason Koebler reminds us, “making a new iPhone is an incredibly destructive endeavor.”

The Pleasantville cheery, sanitized tone of the keynote clashes with Apple’s position as a global tech behemoth. Given the pressures of looming tariffs and trade wars, the event seemed, as the journalist Lauren Goode tweeted, “eerily calm. Like parents throwing a super chill birthday party for the kids when the marriage has gone haywire.”

Likewise, there’s some cognitive whiplash to this month’s reports (and Apple’s problematic initial response) that a major iPhone vulnerability targeted the Uighurs, the persecuted Muslim ethnic minority group, and watching Apple executives onstage days later gleefully trying to make to make slow-motion selfies — “slofies,” according to Apple branding — a thing.

As a luxury brand, Apple’s been accused of being out of touch in keynotes before. My former colleague Katie Notopoulos skewered the company in 2016 for appealing to the prototypical “40-something dad who just wants to FaceTime his adorable children while he’s on a business trip, and also find a local pourover coffee shop while he’s in town.” She dubbed this marketing amalgam, “Apple Man,” noting that the needs of this test audience often came at the expense of making the product more affordable or adding features aimed at the millions of loyal customers who don’t worship at the alter of inbox zero.

To its credit, Apple has taken steps to address a good deal of this criticism. Its keynotes now feature more women and people of color, and Apple has designed many more accessibility features (some life-changing) for users with different needs.

But even more inclusive products can’t fix the problem with recent Apple keynotes: The company’s flagship product — the iPhone — no longer feels like a piece of the future dropped from into the hands of mere mortals. It feels like, well, a phone, a commodity. And so the whole thing seems gratuitous, self-serving and, most importantly, quite removed from the very fraught relationship most of us have with our phones.

That’s part of why the keynotes need to end. Losing them doesn’t mean that the new technology isn’t impressively engineered (machine learning cameras!) or that Apple has failed. It’s probably the opposite. The iPhone set out to change everything, and it did. Mr. Jobs famously pitched Apple products with the line “it just works.” He’s right. It does. And we live with the effects — the good and the very bad — every day. There’s no more need for the song and dance — or Lewis and Clarking a digital frog across a bathroom floor.

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