Question of the Day: Who Got an iPhone X, and When?

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Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Daring Fireball blogger John Gruber is normally a fan of almost everything Apple does. But his last few posts are hopping mad. The reason? Apple’s decision to invite relatively unknown vloggers (and, uh, Popular Science) to its luxe Tribeca loft last week, and let them film hands-on impressions of the phone — and then let them publish those videos about 16 hours earlier than the majority of major outlets offered up their own written reviews.

Here’s Gruber:

HIGHSNOBIETY’S IPHONE X REVIEW 

Thank god Apple seeded these insightful critics with a review unit.

FASHION MAGAZINE REVIEWS THE IPHONE X 

Thank god Apple seeded Fashion with a review unit.

MIKE ALLEN’S IPHONE X REVIEW […]

Thank god Apple seeded Mike Allen with an iPhone X review unit. Such great insight from his fucking nephew, the emoji expert.

Normally, Apple (and most tech companies) will roll out new phones and products by giving loaner press units to certain media outlets. A writer will get a phone about a week before the phone goes on sale or becomes available to the general public. The tech company will also have a strict “embargo” on when a review can be published — that’s why all of the YouTube first impressions went up at 2 p.m. ET on Monday, and all of the full reviews went up at 6 a.m. ET on early Tuesday. (Some outlets that have been friendly with a tech company will also get early embargoes, giving them a leg up on the competition. Tech journalism is, at heart, disgusting.)

It’s a big deal because a good iPhone review (or winning the top search result for “iPhone X review”) can bring massive amounts of traffic. The iPhone is still the best-selling model of phone by a wide margin, the reading public is thirsty for information about it in a way that isn’t true of any other phone on the market, and Apple is notoriously good at manipulating the press, mainly by freezing out any outlet that goes against it. (Gizmodo was banned from attending major Apple announcements for five years after angering Steve Jobs by publishing a story about an unreleased iPhone 4 someone left behind at a bar.) For a solo blogger like Gruber, there’s also a certain amount of prestige associated with getting an early look at the phone — a recognition from Apple’s mysterious powers that be that you’re a “thought leader” or “tech influencer.” But Apple decided to break with tradition this time around, and that’s ruffled a few feathers.

Recode’s Dan Frommer offered his own mild rebuke of YouTubers getting the scoop on outlets like the Verge, TechCrunch, or CNET:

These videos, published by channels including Booredatwork.com, UrAvgConsumer, Soldier Knows Best, and sneaker/streetwear blog HighSnobiety, are a little braggy, mostly positive (“man, it’s pretty good!”) and don’t feel like gadget reviews at all. For many of us, they won’t replace the utility of more sophisticated reviews, which are supposed to tell us whether the iPhone X is worth our $1,000. They’re not great videos, frankly.

The YouTubers weren’t the only reviewers allowed to publish their takes earlier than other reviewers. Steven Levy at Wired, one of the four original reviewers of the first iPhone in 2007, was also allowed to publish his first impressions yesterday, though his piece was more of a “look at how far we’ve come” think piece than a “does Face ID really work” review. Mike Allen at Axios was allowed to publish early, but he decided to hand the X off to his 14-year-old nephew for testing. (Also Mindy Kaling got one and is reviewing it for Glamour, and so did The Ellen Show, which tore down the iPhone X after its announcement in September.)

Even once the embargo on full reviews dropped on Tuesday morning, there was a delineation between outlets. Some places, like TechCrunch and BuzzFeed, got more than a week with the iPhone X (TechCrunch even took it to Disneyland) before publishing on Tuesday, while others, like the Verge and CNET, only received the phone on Monday, so had to publish their very rushed impressions (or, as CNET gamely put it, a “living review” that’ll update as the writer gets more time with the phone).

There’s some irony in someone like Gruber bashing the work of YouTubers. After all, Gruber’s blog, Daring Fireball, became a fixture in online media (and, until this cycle of iPhones, usually netted Gruber an iPhone for review before the general public) because of Gruber’s obsessive work ethic, his talent for sharp insight into Apple, and his willingness to throw elbows at what he considered bad coverage of Apple. In a way unimaginable 20 years ago, Gruber was able to build out his own business through writing, without backing of a major publisher.

Put another way, Gruber is the beneficiary of the same forces at work that made these YouTube channels viable outlets for Apple to allow first impressions: He’s leveraged the potential for anyone’s blog or YouTube to reach millions of people to create his own business. YouTubers do much the same, working long hours, usually without the umbrella of a corporation behind them, to build up their own business. The difference between a blog and a YouTube channel is one of degree, not kind.

You can argue that the YouTube first impressions weren’t great (though I found most of them to be about as insightful as you could hope for, given that each YouTuber only got a few hours with the phone). But behind Gruber and Frommer’s argument (or countless jokes about “pivoting to video”) is the idea that conveying information by making a video rather than typing words into a CMS for a blog post is inherently of less value. And that is, frankly, stupid. The skill set required for being good at YouTube is different than what works for blogs, and many writers (including Gruber and, uh, me) who have managed to make a living writing for the internet would struggle on YouTube for a variety of reasons.

More interesting is Apple’s decision about who got extended time with the iPhone X and who did not. It doesn’t fall into as easy categorization as pro-Apple outlets versus Apple skeptics (TechCrunch hasn’t been afraid to call out Apple in the past, and while BuzzFeed writer Nicole Nguyen has been mostly positive about Apple in the recent past, she’s given mild pans to some of its products before.) If you want to really read the tea leaves, Apple seemed to want to give the iPhone X a week early to outlets that would mainly write “Should I buy this?” type of reviews, and not “glimpsing the face of the future” think pieces the Verge traffics in, or “What’s the battery life like and does the 120-hz touch-panel refresh rate work as advertised?” deep looks that an outlet like CNET is known for.

But Apple isn’t a federal agency. It’s not under any obligation about when and how to give loaner phones to the press. It’s a very large business that makes most of its money from selling millions of smartphones to a certain segment of the phone market, and it’s rolling out its most ambitious and expensive phone since it debuted the original iPhone in 2007 (and, again, in 2007 only four reviewers got a chance to spend time with it before consumers were lining up).

Gruber and others seem miffed that Apple is behaving like a business, following a calculated media rollout plan that offers the most benefit to itself and not to reporters (or readers). From Apple’s point of view, these press reviews are useful only insofar as they manage to convince people on the fence about getting an iPhone X (and to shell out a significant sum and potentially face long wait times), rather than hold on to the phone they have now, or switch to something like the Pixel 2. It doesn’t need the press to cover the iPhone X in-depth or gain name recognition. Apple doesn’t really need the media at all. But the media very much needs the traffic and attention that a good iPhone scoop or review can bring — especially a site like Daring Fireball.

Question of the Day: Who Got an iPhone X, and When?