These days it seems as though the big phone companies have to have a big, grandiose product launch for their newest range of expensive phones. Apple, Google, Samsung, Huawei, OnePlus and the rest. They all rent out a big stage somewhere, cart in a bunch of audience members, and show off on stage while a small handful of people over-enthusiastically whoop at the mere mention of mundane shit. And frankly I’m sick of it.
I don’t know why phone launches are a thing, but it’s probably Apple’s fault. The iPhone was first shown off on stage at Macworld in January 2007, similar to how things had done with previous Apple products like the iPod.
Big product launches have always been a thing (who can forget the very cringe-worthy launch of Windows 95?), but the iPhone was the first time I remember it being big news that a phone had been launched. Granted I was a teenager at the time and had better things to care about, but phone launches weren’t really a thing people seemed to care about. These days it’s a little bit different.
While it’s unclear how many regular people care about phone launches, the fact is that they are now a big deal in the world of tech. Everyone has at least one every year – sometimes two depending on how many phones they pump out – but in my mind they’re becoming increasingly redundant.
I started writing this in anticipation of the Galaxy Note 10 launch event, less than an hour after writing a story about how all the specs just leaked. How accurate they are remained to be seen at that point, but the fact of the matter was that we pretty much knew exactly what to expect on stage. Likewise last year the Pixel 3 was leaked so heavily that Google had to make a self-deprecating video about it. Then the launch event went on as planned and Google people talked about some really quite mundane stuff that could have sent me to sleep if I hadn’t just drunk a lot of caffeine.
I finished the Pixel 3 event thinking that it had been a horrendous waste of time. Sure I got all the details about the phone, but by October that wasn’t news. Google could have just sent out a press release with specs, features, and a price list and achieved the exact same thing. No awkward presentations, no livestreams to worry about, just the facts.
In a weird sort of way it feels as though Google has learned from that whole thing, and has been drip-feeding us information about the upcoming Pixel 4. I have no doubt that Google will have some sort of launch event for the phone and its XL counterpart, but it’s unclear what form that is going to take.
At the very least it shows that Google is willing to accept that leaks happen, and that it’s incredibly patronising to ignore them and treat people as if they’re hearing all that information for the very first time. At least by getting ahead of the leaks and releasing information independently, Google regains a measure of control of the information that’s out there.
While that isn’t stopping anything else from leaking it does mean Google gets to build some hype around the things it wants to hype up. Unlike last year when all people could worry about was the massive honking notch on the Pixel 3 XL. OnePlus has done this as well, doing that whole ‘community’ thing to drip feed fans with new information and keep the hype train rolling up to the launch event. Not that it stops OnePlus from doing a flashy-ass launch event of its own.
Not Every Exec Has to be Steve Jobs
I’d argue that the “Apple Effect” is what made big phone launches so popular, and it’s become some sort of ego boost to the executives in charge. In the same way that late Apple CEO Steve Jobs was the one who took to the stage to be the company’s figurehead, now we have plenty of companies who feel they need to do the same thing. Regardless of whether they should be there or not.
Other tech journalists out there will know exactly the kind of press conferences I mean, and will no doubt have sat through a lot more arse-numbing experiences than I have in the years I’ve been doing this job.
I can think of one prominent company that was pretty bad at this (I’m not naming names), rolling out an executive who clearly isn’t the best public speaker in the first place. He has a reputation for going off script at times, and as cruel as it may sound coming from me his grasp on English clearly isn’t the best – making him a pretty bad choice for presenting to an audience of western journalists.
Apple has been absurdly successful in recent decades, especially in western markets, and it’s not that surprising to see companies who want to stake their claim of the market share doing everything they can to mimic their efforts.
But not every CEO or executive is Steve Jobs, the man who built his reputation as ‘Mr Apple’ because he was the perfect person to be on stage showing off whatever thing Apple had that year. These days it’s quite different in Cupertino, and current CEO Tim Cook generally delegates the work to other people. People who seem to know this stuff better than he does, while he just fills in the gaps with more overarching speeches.
Other companies do that too, and off the top of my head I know that Google, Samsung, and Microsoft all use the man in charge quite sparingly in comparison to what Apple used to do with Jobs. But not every company has figured that out yet, and if they did it might make their launches a lot less unbearable.
There’s too Much Fluff
Part of the issue is that big phone launches are usually pretty dull. At the very least they tend to be an hour long, and in some cases those sorts of presentations can go on for an extra 60 to 90 minutes depending on what’s being announced and the demos taking place. Apple is, quite frankly, the worst at this, and when Apple events roll around we never know how long we’re going to have to keep watching.
Frankly there’s a lot of fluff, and going back to last week’s Galaxy Unpacked we ended up having a lot of time dedicated to two devices that had already been announced: the Galaxy Watch Active 2 and the Galaxy Tab S6. We didn’t need that, and that time could have been put to much better use – like giving us more information on the Galaxy Book S, which was barely glossed over in comparison.
Of course these launches aren’t exactly aimed at regular people. It’s a celebration of what a company is doing, and the reality is that they’re probably putting on that show to please board members and investors. Do people really need to watch DJ Koh talk about how great the Galaxy Note 10 is? Probably not, because most buyers won’t be tuned in.
They’ll find out about the new phone from news sites, or by seeing adverts on the street. Their opinions matter, since they have to be convinced to buy the phone, but they’re not quite as important as the rich people. Anger or worry the rich folks and they’ll jump ship, taking your share prices with it.
And there are also the diehard fans who want to consume all the news as it happens, and not by reading what went on on their favourite tech news site. But I think there’s a nice compromise here, and it’s something that we’ve already seen from Nintendo.
The Nintendo directs are a best of both, so to speak, offering outsiders the chance to see what the company wants to announced but without all the excess nonsense that is often attached to big phone launches. The Direct at E3 this year was less than 45 minutes long, and typically the directs that take place throughout the year are even shorter.
I’d wager that the name ‘Direct’ comes from more than just Nintendo speaking directly to fans, because those presentations are often direct and to the point – giving us the information we need in a way that’s a bit more personal than a press release, but without fucking about in the process.
Let’s Tone This Shit Down
To be honest the most important reason why I’m sick of phone launches isn’t the stuff above. As important as those points are, phone launches are boring because phones are boring. Flashy launches stem from a time where a new phone meant something exciting to be hyped up, but when was the last time a phone was actually worth getting truly excited about?
Probably the Galaxy Fold or Huawei Mate X, which are reasonably interesting devices compared to the rest. But before that? We’ve been stuck with several years of incremental upgrades that aren’t worth getting too excited over. Do those upgrades need a big fancy launch event?
Maybe, maybe not. One day we may get to the stage where a flagship phone launch is treated the same way a lot of companies treat laptops these days. The outliers will still have big events featuring their new hardware (Apple and Huawei still dedicate stage time to their laptops after all), but for the most part it’ll just be done with press releases and images. Maybe an embargo or two.
In other words, much like companies treat their mid and budget range phones already. But unfortunately for me that doesn’t look like it’ll happen anytime soon.