Apple and the expectations game

I don’t know what Apple is planning to announce at Tuesday’s iPhone 3.0 event—which you can follow live at Macworld.com, incidentally. I mean, I can make some educated guesses, but it’s not like I can claim inside sources telling me everything I ever wanted to know about copy-and-paste. Heck, I don’t even rate distant relatives of college roommates of passing acquaintances of inside sources. I really do need to get out more. So when it comes to figuring out what Apple has up its sleeve on Tuesday, I’m in the same boat as most of you—I can go down Macworld’s list of wouldn’t-it-be-nice-to-have iPhone 3.0 features and check off the ones that seem plausible enough and then hope I’m not too terribly wrong in public.

There is one prediction I’m pretty confident about, however—one thing that I can declare with absolute certainty will go down on Tuesday. Whatever iPhone 3.0 features Apple announces—copy-and-paste, push notifications, video capture, or hourly affirmations of what a swell human being you are for owning such a superlative phone—somebody, somewhere will declare that Apple’s announcement failed to live up to expectations.

And chances are pretty good that somebody will be a tech reporter.

Such is the state of affairs with Apple’s press events these days. People have come to expect landmark, earth-shattering announcements when they’re summoned to Cupertino by Apple. And anything short of a big Broadway production number that ends with an Apple executive—preferably Steve Jobs—producing some breath-taking gadget out of a puff of smoke produces a chorus of ho-hums from the chattering classes trained to expect the Next Big Thing.

Consider what went down two weeks ago. Apple updated its entire desktop line, including the first new releases for both the Mac mini and Mac Pro in more than a year. It also threw in AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule updates and, just for fun, a stealth speed-bump to the 15-inch MacBook Pro.

The reaction from some corners of the tech press can best be summed up by one word: And?

Or, if you think that assessment is unfair, let the headlines do the talking. “New Mac lineup: Expensive, ‘underwhelming’” read the intro to one Computerworld story. “New Mac Mini Misses the Mark for Small Business,” declared our friends down the hall not even 24 hours after Apple even updated the mini’s tech specs page. At MSNBC.com, one writer concluded that Apple announced the hardware updates by press release rather than via a high-profile event because of Steve Jobs’ health issues—an absurd, know-nothing analysis, since Apple announces speed-bumps via press release all the time—while AppleInsider.com lamented the “news vacuum” following Apple’s product news two days after the announcement. (To quote the wonderfully bilious MacJournals.com: “Apple essentially makes … nine flagship products. And just 58-and-a-half hours after updating three of them, AppleInsider is bored.”)

In a way, Apple is crying all the way to the bank. The fact that noteworthy Apple releases come under fire for failing to live up to lofty expectations just emphasizes what a big deal Apple is in tech circles and how the people who write about these sorts of things for a living hang on every word emanating from Cupertino. Lots of companies would kill for that kind of press, hyper analytical though it may be. The only thing worse than having to contend with inflated and impossible-to-meet expectations, a Web 2.0 version of Oscar Wilde might observe, is not to have people care enough to have any expectations at all.

Apple also encourages this kind of rumor-mongering, albeit not entirely intentionally, by being so tight-lipped about its product plans. The company announces events like the one on Tuesday and then clams up. With so many Web sites chronicling Aple’s every move, something has to fill the gap between the company announcing an event and the big day itself. Usually, that something turns out to be speculation—some of it informed, a lot of it less so—which, in turn, influences the expectations going into an Apple event. If you’re still able to assess the company’s products announcements on their own merits, then there’s nothing wrong with a little speculation. If you start viewing things through the prism of some Web writer’s fever dream, though… well, that’s when we start to run into problems.

And I think that’s important to keep in mind heading into Tuesday’s event, with the rumor mill—A tablet! A premium App Store! A dessert that’s low in calories but won’t let you down in the flavor department!—ramping up to maximum overdrive. The true measure of whatever Apple announces Tuesday won’t be taken in the instant analysis that appears the second after whatever Apple executive tasked with the presentation thanks everyone for coming. (“What does Steve Jobs' absence Tuesday mean for Apple?” you can almost hear some page-view-happy pundit typing on his MacBook Pro in advance of Tuesday’s shindig. “What will it all mean?’) Rather, we’ll have a better idea once Apple’s latest release is in our hands and we can all see whether it improves Apple’s iPhone offerings and by how much. It’s a pretty obvious sentiment, I’m afraid, but one that I think gets lost in the shuffle of today’s demand to figure out What It All Means on the spot and with very little context.

  
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