The iPhone launch is, without question, the most important public event for Apple every year. That’s true not just in terms of the effect the product has on the company’s bottom line, but in terms of the overall attention and media coverage as well. Apple has gotten very good at these events, and, even during a pandemic, has managed to produce them far better than most other tech companies.
That’s important because the way Apple decides to spend its time says everything about what it thinks is important. The choices it makes in terms of what additional products to include, how to present them, and even who takes the stage are carefully considered and orchestrated in a way that most other tech companies haven’t mastered.
That’s why it’s so confusing to me that they had such a strange moment during the iPhone 12 launch this week. You couldn’t have missed it. No, I’m not talking about the almost surreal drone shots flying through the campus.
After Tim Cook announced that the company was introducing the iPhone 12, Apple showed a brief video about the iPhone, and then turned the virtual stage over to Hans Vestberg, the Chairman and CEO of Verizon. For four whole minutes. Which, by my count, is more time than they spent on the brand new A14 chip that will likely power the first generation of Apple Silicon Macs.
Why would Apple do this?
Part of the problem is that Vestberg, who, from everything I can tell is probably a perfectly nice person–and probably a great CEO–isn’t a great presenter. Certainly not if we’re measuring by Apple’ standard. Of course, Apple’s standard is Steve Jobs, so maybe that’s not entirely fair.
Vestberg is not Steve Jobs. He’s not even Tim Cook, who, despite lacking the natural ease and showmanship of Jobs, is still a very competent presenter.
At first, I couldn’t figure out why Apple would turn over that much of its time to Verizon. And that wasn’t the only mention. I lost count of the number of times Apple went on about how incredible 5G is going to be on an iPhone. (Spoiler alert: it probably won’t be for a while.)
I found myself asking the question “what did Apple get for allowing Verizon to have its own infomercial during the iPhone 12 launch. Apple doesn’t just sell the iPhone for Verizon. It also sells it on AT&T and T-Mobile/Sprint. So from a carrier relations standard, it doesn’t make much sense. Then again, Apple is counting on Verizon to sell a lot of iPhones.
Here’s the thing, iPhone growth has slowed over the past few years. It’s still the company’s cash cow, but people are holding on to their devices longer and are finding less reason to upgrade every year or so. That means Apple has actually been selling less iPhones compared to previous years, though it still makes a ton of money selling them.
When most people walk into a Verizon store, they might be planning to buy a particular phone, but it’s amazing how much sway those salespeople have over what device they end up with. That may not seem likely for iPhone loyalists, but the iPhone still represents less than half of the U.S. smartphone market. There are a lot of people choosing non-Apple smartphones.
I can imagine a world where there was a conversation that went something like “sure, you can come talk up your 5G network at our event, and we’ll be sure to mention 5G a few dozen times, as long as your people don’t stop talking about the iPhone 12 when customers are in your stores.”
Apple absolutely wants them pushing iPhone 12s out the door.
Which is why this is brilliant. Apple definitely gave the impression, at least during the event, that 5G = Verizon, even though that’s not exclusively true. You can still buy an iPhone from T Mobile or AT&T and honestly, you won’t know the difference, at least as far as 5G is concerned.
At the same time, Verizon is the largest wireless carrier in the US, with roughly 110 million subscribers. I imagine there will be a lot of people leaving Verizon stores with iPhones in the near future instead of, say, a Samsung Note 20 or Google Pixel 5, at least if Apple gets its way. Those phones have 5G as well, but they don’t have nearly the same level of marketing clout as the iPhone, they just don’t.
One last point, which is that Apple doesn’t hold iPhone events for Apple loyalists, or even tech reviewers. It holds them for a far broader audience, many of whom are much less concerned with any preconceived idea about the appropriate ethos of an Apple event. Giving up that small amount of time didn’t cost them anything with that audience, which is why even the worst four minutes of the iPhone 12 launch might just be a brilliant move for Apple.