How to Make Tech Keynotes Exciting Again

“Hey, everyone, we’ve got some new cameras and stuff.” Photo: Apple

This afternoon, the smartphone maker Apple announced an exciting lineup of new cameras, available to the public later this month. There’s a wide lens, there’s an ultrawide lens, there’s a telephoto lens, and there are lots of mega-pixels. One of the cameras is now capable of shooting slow-motion video. Overall, Apple’s camera slate is looking very impressive.

Tangential to all of these camera announcements was the device they are housed in, the new iPhones 11 and 11 Pro. By now you can set your watch (maybe your Apple Watch?) by the new features contained within. There’s a faster chipset, capable of [insert large number] operations per second (the fastest yet). There’s a screen that looks oh so pretty (the most beautiful yet). The housing has been “precision-milled” or whatever (the sleekest yet). And the camera looks cool. The best pictures yet.

It’s no secret that Apple hardware announcements are very boring. That’s fine: It’s a testament to the iPhone’s influence and ubiquity that it has hit a wall when it comes to “game-changing innovation” or whatever. Now that a lot of software is cloud-based, spec bumps matter less and less, so long as you have an internet connection. The camera being the focal point of every iPhone unveiling from now until the end of time, it seems, is largely because the camera is the last component that could be meaningfully improved upon from a hardware perspective. (That is, until whatever game-changing thing I’m not even capable of foreseeing comes along.) The iPhone keynote is now a predictable snooze fest, and has been for a bit

Big, flashy tech keynotes do still exist though. The people hosting them are just terrible at marketing them. All of the exciting leaps forward are announced at dryly named “developer conferences,” where services and cloud-based computing are constantly wheeled out with flashy demos. Apple has WWDC, Google has I/O, and Facebook has F8. This is where all the cool stuff happens now. Facebook reconstructing an old photo as a 3-D virtual-reality environment. Google having an automated voice pretend to be human and place a restaurant reservation. Apple, uh, announcing dark mode for its operating systems?

I kid on that last one, but since Apple is refashioning itself as a services company, its most interesting and unpredictable announcements come from the new things its offering, not just riffs on an old tune. One could argue that today’s most interesting announcement was not that the new iPhone 11 Pro would have three lenses, but that Apple’s streaming service was launching this fall and would only cost five bucks a month.

The problem is that none of these “services” companies have figured out how to make software as exciting as hardware. For one thing, I don’t think the average person is interested in tuning into a “developer conference” in the same way that they’re interested in tuning into a “NEW iPHONE ANNOUNCEMENT!!!” They’re not really covered in the same breathless way in the media. It’s tough to draw an equivalence between them, because a new phone is a thing you can acquire and unwrap and use. New cloud software is appealing for the opposite reason: It appears and is available without any fuss or tactile feel. But I swear on my life, if you are bored by iPhone announcements, check out a dev-conference keynote instead and glimpse the future.

There are ways to make software-based livestream interesting, but the clearest example of this is Nintendo’s Direct livestreams. Every so often, the company hosts a livestream and reveals what new games and software updates are coming down the pipeline. These livestreams generate internet chatter in the same way that iPhone keynotes used to. What’s key is that Nintendo gives concrete release dates for new things, while in contrast, developer conferences are often filled with prototypes, experimental creations, and vague release windows. A frustrating viewing experience.

The other thing that Nintendo has started doing reliably is, for lack of a less cliché term, pulling a Beyoncé. They always have at least one new thing that’s available … right now!!! It’s such a good trick. It sends everybody scrambling. Streaming services are the same way on occasion. “The new season of Show X is out now!” or “The new album from Y is available early!” Wow! What a gift! It’s a shot of instant gratification that none of the Big Tech companies have figured out how to master … yet. (Apple tried it once with U2 and it was a disaster. Its mistake was not letting users opt in.) Imagine how much more exciting a Facebook or Google or Apple announcement would be if they showed off some slick new update and then gave it to you immediately, instead of promising that it’s “rolling out in the coming months.” Damn. That would be so good.

My point is that even if iPhone keynotes are no longer exciting for you, there are replacements out there. It just takes a little patience on your end and maybe a little bit of refinement on the other end.

How to Make Tech Keynotes Exciting Again