One month to the iPhone: how it will go down

December 11, 2006, 10:00 AM UTC


Apple Computer (AAPL) is more determined than any other company in Silicon Valley to use secrecy to its advantage – and the result is that product announcements from its CEO awaken a glee in the tech press that can be compared only to a kid under the tree on Christmas morning.

Steve Jobs, Apple’s co-founder and CEO, has elevated the technology announcement to an art form. It’s a formula he executes to near perfection every January at Macworld San Francisco, the event that’s Apple’s biggest opportunity to make a splash with new products. It’s a formula that every longtime Apple reporter knows, and that a new iPhone will have to fit into on January 9:

The Entrance:
First Jobs strides onto the stage to wild applause. The audience had been waiting for hours to enter a dark room with hip, moody music piped throughout, and his arrival signals the beginning of the festivities.

It’s like your parents coming downstairs on Christmas morning after you’ve been awake for hours anticipating the gifts. He says some variation of, “We’ve got a lot of cool stuff to show you today, and we’re really excited, so let’s get started.”

Oh, boy.

The Setup:
Next, Jobs usually gives a little retrospective. He talks about the products Apple has recently introduced, and how they fit together. He usually gives some numbers to show how well Apple’s retail stores did during the holiday season – he might even single out a flagship store and highlight how many sales it did every hour.

He’ll offer some iPod numbers. He’ll offer some Mac numbers. This year he’ll probably talk about how many movies and TV shows iTunes users have downloaded, to emphasize that Apple has commanding market share of legal video downloads.

This is the point when he usually announces new content partners for iTunes – new movie studios signing on, for instance, or new TV content. Jobs does this early in the show because it’s corporate business – somewhat cool, but not the hands-on stuff consumers really get psyched about.

The Tease:
After that, Jobs typically launches into a software demonstration. This is the time to rehash features of an upcoming operating system release, do a little Windows bashing, and show off a couple of cool new doo-dads in the latest version of OS X.

This is also the time to show off updates to Apple’s iLife suite – programs like iMovie, iDVD, iPhoto, etc. He’ll often show off some professional software, too, and some professional hardware. He then starts hinting that the really exciting stuff is next.

The Main Event:
This is the product announcement that gets the most hype – it’s typically something accessible and high-volume like an iMac or an iBook with new features and a low price – something the masses can get excited about. This year it might be the iTV. Jobs unveils it, demonstrates it, praises its design, and rolls video of a commercial hawking it and of experts extolling its virtues. He might bring a celebrity out on stage to be dazzled by it. Jobs then recaps the announcements of the day with a satisfied tone, lulling the dazzled audience into a false sense that this is the end.

One More Thing:
But of course, it’s not the end. As he finishes his recap, Jobs says something like, “But there’s One More Thing,” and the words “One More Thing” may even appear on the screen behind him. The most experienced Apple watchers and rumormongers have awaited this moment. They’re hoping the “One More Thing” will be that ultimate technology advance they’ve been waiting for, the one they’ve predicted for months.

The true believers relax and the cynical ones brace themselves to defend against the full force of Jobs’ legendary “Reality Distortion Field,” the mystical aura that sucks you in and makes you believe that Apple is the most beautiful force for goodness and truth and light in the known universe. One More Thing is the biggest gift of the morning, the one that wouldn’t fit under the Christmas tree and had to be kept in a secret spot in the garage, and as Jobs unveils it, and demonstrates it, and praises it, the crowd looks on in slack-jawed amazement, awash in feelings of unworthiness that yet again Steven P. Jobs would deign in such Promethean fashion to bring the unwashed among us such a gift of digital fire.

This year, in all likelihood, “One More Thing” will be the iPhone. This will present some pacing challenges for Jobs, because it’s also the most anticipated and over-hyped product in Apple history and the only thing most people at Macworld will care about. After every announcement leading up to it, the crowd will be thinking, “That’s pretty nice, nifty even. But where’s my iPhone?”

I imagine that for Jobs, this will be sort of like dealing with an 8-year-old who wants a pony for Christmas. Even if you get her the pony, she might be disappointed that it isn’t a unicorn.

But if Apple can create an iPod … surely if it tries hard enough, it can genetically engineer a unicorn?

Please, please, please?