The iPhone Pro is what an off year for Apple looks like
Has Apple ever advertised one of its own events so heavily? Prior to Tuesday's event in which the company announced the new iPhone 11 among other things, their ads were practically inescapable on YouTube and Twitter.
The reasoning now looks pretty simple: The new iPhone 11 and its Pro variants are incremental upgrades, and after weakening sales last year, Apple is pouring money into marketing to try and boost sales before a significant redesign and upgrade in 2020.
That a company is trying to sell its wares is hardly surprising. But this year, as Apple tried not only to pitch its new standard iPhones as exciting but also tried to sell its Pro model as a significant upgrade to the 11 — which it arguably is not at all — the company slipped into almost being misleading. That poses a risk, and is a disappointing move from the world's most important tech company.
Apple's events have always been a bit of shock and awe. They bombard us with so many details, acronyms, videos, and specs that the cumulative psychological effect of watching one is to start lusting over their newest stuff even if you don't need it. That is, after all, the point of these things: they are hype-generating spectacles meant to stoke desire. A key part of that is the hyperbole that Apple uses. Every product is the best ever, the industry leader, or the first of its kind.
So when Apple introduced the newest entry-level iPad with a bigger screen or the latest Series 5 of its Apple Watch, it of course used its over-the-top language to describe them. With those two products, however, it still feels fair: Both the iPad and Watch are essentially without any real competition as Google and Microsoft have largely abandoned those segments. Want the best smartwatch or tablet? Easy, get an Apple product.
But when it comes to the iPhone, things are different. The big news Tuesday was the iPhone line is now divided in a way that makes far more sense. Rather than a cut-rate iPhone XR, its successor is now the iPhone 11, the phone for everyone that has two cameras and a screen that most people would describe as "fine." At $699, it's a solid option for most people — though as Jason Koebler at Vice notes, you probably don't need a new phone at all.
For those who do want more, though, there is now the iPhone 11 Pro, or the even more preposterously named iPhone 11 Pro Max. Apple's Phil Schiller took great pains to pitch the new iPhone 11 Pro as the professional one, using the phrase "it's so Pro" numerous times.
There's only one problem: The iPhone 11 Pro uses the same basic hardware as the iPhone 11. The more expensive device has the same CPU, meaning it is just as fast and just as capable. It also has the same basic cameras, but adds a third telephoto lens to the 11's two. In essence, there is almost nothing you can do on an iPhone 11 Pro that you can't do on the regular iPhone 11.
That is annoying. Apple's marketing has always been subject to critique and ridicule, mostly for how absurdly positive it is. But in pushing the Pro as a genuine upgrade to the 11 — at a full $300 more — Apple slipped into something more misleading and underhanded. Another camera option and a better screen will mean little to most people, and in positioning the device as something that somehow is more suited to people who want to use it for work, Apple may have pushed its usual marketing speak too far.
Apple's position in culture extends beyond tech. Their products have often enjoyed the benefit of a kind of implicit pull. Whether it's the subtly coercive vibe of the blue bubbles of iMessage vs the green of regular texts, or the sea of Apple logos that greet you at your third-wave coffee shop, Apple's appeal has always been intimately tied to their status as cultural symbols — that they stand for a glossy new future and personal success.
But this year, Apple is managing its elongated cycles: acknowledging that the switch to 5G or an in-screen fingerprint reader on the iPhone, or new health features like blood pressure monitoring on the Apple watch, are still at least a year out. That's why there's been a bombardment of hype in the absence of any meaningful change: because the tech that might wow people simply isn't ready yet.
So, like any company, they tried to talk things up a bit. But in choosing to do so in a sneaky way, it feels like Apple crossed a line from understandable showmanship to baseless bragging. What remains to be seen now is how this plays out: of whether the hype works and Apple is able to push iPhone sales back up — or instead, people see through the false hype and create a backlash that, in this case, Apple quite rightly deserves.
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