Yesterday’s It’s Show Time event was supposed to be a big deal for Apple — an opportunity for the company to spotlight new subscription services without the distraction of minor hardware releases. By press-releasing new iPads, iMacs, and AirPods throughout the prior week, Apple made sure that its audience focused its undivided attention on its services story.
Unfortunately, that story had a rocky start and an increasingly familiar conclusion. It began with a roundup of existing Apple services, ranging from the universally beloved Apple Pay to the perpetually troubled Siri, and finished with promises that new services will become available later this year. Only Apple News+ launched immediately, while Apple TV Channels was promised for May, Apple Card for the summer, then Apple TV+ and Apple Arcade sometime (or perhaps at different times) in the fall.
There was a time when Apple knew that playing the “coming soon” card wasn’t smart business. Almost every new product announcement was followed by a promise of immediate or near-immediate availability in stores. Only on the most special and strategic occasions was a far-off release date acceptable — Apple gave itself six months to gain regulatory approvals, manufacture, and make deals for the iPhone, then three months for the iPad. They were certainly exceptions to the norm.
These days, there’s a fairly good chance that a new Apple offering will be “coming soon” rather than “available today.” Assuming that they aren’t delayed, four of the five new Apple services announced yesterday are months off. Accessories including AirPods and HomePod were both “coming soon” products, and each experienced different types of shipping delays. Apple has even preannounced a new Mac Pro and AirPower wireless charging mat that have both been “coming soon” for over a year. I’m not even including one- or two-month laggards like 2017’s flagship iPhone X or 2018’s near-flagship iPhone XR.
It’s obvious at this point that Apple CEO Tim Cook not only plays the long game, but doesn’t particularly sweat the idea of a new offering waiting a while to become available after its initial introduction. Beyond the examples above, he slow-launched the Apple Watch, relaunched both Beats Music and Texture, and openly teased bigger things to come (read: hardware) with augmented reality.
For consumers, though, Apple’s “coming soon” debuts are getting old. Yesterday’s two-hour event was mostly about services that aren’t yet ready to launch, and weren’t especially exciting the moment they were announced — at least, as announced. It remains to be seen whether their pricing will be so enticing that people will sign up for them anyway, but if Apple News+ is any example, there may need to be more or better content than what Apple’s currently offering to justify paying a recurring monthly fee.
This isn’t to say that tomorrow, May, summer, or fall is too late for Apple to sharpen its second pitches for these services; this is indeed a long game, which is why I respectfully disagree with the writer who said last week that Apple couldn’t launch AirPower even a day after AirPods without being “too late.” Apple’s accessories tend to stick around for three years before sequels show up, and its new services most likely have years ahead of them as well. The company doesn’t need to sell a million of anything on announcement day or even launch day, though it can and has done so. It just needs to get people interested enough that they want to come back and make a purchase whenever the opportunity presents itself.
In this case, however, Apple shouldn’t have held an event where so many of the offerings were both intangible and off in the future. Once Show Time was over, there wasn’t much left for livestream viewers (say nothing of those who drove or flew out to attend the event) to do except wait around and check Apple News.
Meanwhile, the aforementioned new iPads, iMacs, and AirPods are all hitting stores this week. Hopefully they’ll be enough to keep people busy while the clock ticks down to the actual releases of the services Apple announced yesterday.