Editor’s Note: Jeff Yang is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion. He co-hosts the podcast “They Call Us Bruce,” and is co-author of the bestselling book “RISE: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now” and author of the forthcoming “THE GOLDEN SCREEN: The Movies That Made Asian America.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
The room goes hush as the lights go down. The stage brightens with a single spot — and out walks the iconic leader, the shepherd of the flock, the purveyor of dreams. And then, the story unfurls, chapter by chapter, with clean charts, big numbers, brief captions and whirling and zooming images of technology that draw oohs, aahs and occasionally, standing ovations.
I’ve never been present at an Apple event in person, but I’ve watched every one in the Internet era via livestream or after-the-fact video, and have invariably been blown away by how well Apple has mined not just the intersection of technology and the humanities, as founder Steve Jobs was frequently known to brag, but the convergence of substance and hoopla.
There are plenty of very real world-changing innovations that Apple has unveiled over the decades — the Mac, the iPhone and the Apple Watch among them. But Apple holds its events at least twice a year for consumers and developers, and all too often the products, services and ideas that the company unveils at them are snarked upon as follow-on fare with incremental tweaks that have little real impact on usability or performance.
And yet, even seasoned tech observers — I’ll count myself in this bunch — can’t stay in their seats when they’re revealed.
Watches with “Double Tap” gesture recognition? AI pet recognition technology for the new iPhone 15 camera? Titanium encasements for the new 15 Pro and Pro Max? USB-C charging? (Finally!) Let the crowd roar! (A legit cheerworthy moment, though: Apple’s newly reinforced commitment, announced with the help of Octavia Spencer playing Mother Nature, to having its devices be totally net zero climate impact by 2030. Green Apples for the win.)
So what’s Apple’s secret sauce? Why has the company been able to sustain such persistent passion and loyalty? And how has it been able to keep excitement levels so enviably high, given that, like every company, Apple has had its share of notorious flops over the years? (The Newton, the Cube and the misbegotten Apple gaming platform Pippin spring to mind.)
A big part of it is Apple’s relentless commitment to showmanship, leaning into a critical set of tactics over the years to ensure that its events are Events, with a capital E.
They are rigorously planned, choreographed and rehearsed
Jobs would practice his presentations for weeks before donning the black mock turtleneck and hitting the stage, and his successor Tim Cook has adopted Jobs’s work ethic and formalized it as policy. The company stages each event like the Normandy invasion, with executives reportedly setting aside two full weeks to practice their presentations.
The product is the star
Whether it’s a music player, a magnetic wallet or a new style of cable connection, even the simplest Apple innovations get a level of reverential treatment that Hollywood icons can only dream of. And presenters are careful to not overshadow the devices, standing with composed faces, speaking in carefully flat, measured tones, and making gently symmetrical gestures. They’re not protagonists in this story; they’re humble non-player characters, offering up magical tools to aid the audience in their journey.
They winnow complicated technology down to key features that audiences can readily understand
There might be a few numbers and benchmarks in Apple’s product presentations, but they’re carefully curated — and often cited as multiples (10 times faster; twice as long) or comparisons (thinner than a pencil). But the real sleight of hand in how Apple simplifies tech lies in how well presenters home in on a single, clear idea that brings to life what the experience will be for the end user. The iPod wasn’t an “MP3 player.” It was “a thousand songs … right in my pocket.” And the iPhone? It wasn’t just a phone. It was the internet in your pocket. (Apple knows that the best way to extract money is to be in people’s pockets.)
But ultimately, what makes Apple Events magical is this: Apple Events are purpose-built to engender wonder — yes, just like in the title of today’s event, “Wonderlust.” Wonder is, simply put, “mystery” plus “joy” — a wholly unexpected surprise that triggers a sudden jolt of pleasure and inspiration.
The “unexpected surprise” element of the wonder algorithm is why Apple places such a phenomenally high premium on secrecy. The net effect is to drive the fan base into a frenzy as event day approaches, priming them to treat whatever the company showers upon them as pure gold.
It’s easy to be cynical about Apple’s finely tuned hype machine. The employees on stage are undoubtedly earnest in their exhortations; the boast among Apple’s old-guard acolytes was that they “bleed six colors,” like the company’s formerly multi-hued logo. But for any public company, the color that matters most is the green of cash, and Apple is responsible for gushers of that. At the end of the day, the show the company puts on isn’t entertainment or education. It’s self-promotion.
And yet, for the hour or two that Apple Events last, they still manage to entrance us; to pull us into their story; and to make us feel a sense of awe at the care and effort, the attention to detail, the whimsically unexpected easter eggs that Apple products always offer.
Wonder is something we have too little of in our lives, and that feels transformative when we experience it, even in the service of unit sales. Wonder slows down the world. Wonder helps us feel human. And as researchers have discovered, wonder has the tendency to make us more generous toward others — opening our pockets just enough to purchase an iPhone 15 Max Pro, perhaps.
No wonder Apple is worth nearly $3 trillion.