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Apple: Quite believable, actually

I might have stumbled into a new drinking game Thursday when it occurred to me that seemingly every other word out of an Apple executive’s mouth at one of the company’s signature keynote presentations was “unbelievable.” (Readers of a certain age will recognize this as a variation of the ‘Bob Newhart’ game, where participants slugged a gulp of beer every time a character on TV said, “Hi Bob!”; Fortunately there was no alcohol available at Apple’s mid-morning event at the company’s headquarters in Cupertino, Calif.)

The funny thing about Apple’s predictable hyperbole is that Apple has become rather believable, its presentation word choice notwithstanding. Thursday’s event was unremarkable in the sense that it was a housekeeping affair for Apple. Traditionally Apple holds an event in October to announce refreshed product lines in time for the Christmas shopping season. The event begins with an update on previously unveiled initiatives and products: Thursday’s were new iPhones (the biggest launch ever), Apple Pay (open for business Oct. 20), and the Apple Watch (due out in “early 2015”). Then Apple shows the new stuff, which this time around included new and improved versions of its mobile and desktop software (snazzy new functionality—and free!) as well as new iPads (thinner, faster, relatively cheaper). Oh, better Macs too, with dramatically sharper displays.

The word that pops up most frequently to describe Apple’s showing is “expected.” Wall Street and other enthusiasts expected all this and Apple delivered. For any other company, such a show of technical and marketing force would be the event of a generation. For Apple it’s just another day at the office. It’s what we’ve come to expect: The cherry-picked product-review quotes, slides that mock the competition, the gorgeously produced brand and product videos, and so on.

Seasoned Apple watchers will find reasons to nitpick, of course. Analysts at investment house Stifel latched onto Apple’s laudable (and oft-repeated) statistic showing the percentage of iPhone users who have upgraded to Apple’s newest iOS 8 operating system compared with Android users, 48% versus 25%. “We would note that iOS 7 reached 30% adoption in the first 16 hours and was at 64% adoption at the time of Apple’s 2013 iPad event in late October,” the Stifel party-poopers wrote to clients. Apple neglected to make this comparison. These same analysts, while praising Apple’s generally wonderful iPads, wrote: “We would continue to highlight the 50%-plus U.S. household tablet penetration and third party-estimates showing a decelerating growth trend toward low- to mid-single digits going forward.” Translation: Those tablets are gorgeous, but that won’t revolve a stagnating market.

Apple (AAPL) was in sales mode Thursday, naturally. Yet it’s also interesting how self-deprecating Apple has become. Under Tim Cook, Apple’s persona is less arrogant—and more amusing. Noting with pride the appearance of an Apple Watch on the wrist of a cover model in Vogue China, Cook made fun of his own commented-upon lack of style. A quite funny live bit with comedian Stephen Colbert had fun with Apple’s famous secrecy, while software chief Craig Federighi poked fun at Apple’s newfound inability to contain leaks about product announcements. Former CEO Steve Jobs didn’t view this as a laughing matter. Apple’s results don’t seem to be suffering because the market generally knows what’s coming next.

More than once Apple showed a photo that was a powerful commentary on the company. (It appears above.) It showed the elegant side views of an Apple Watch, an iPhone, an iPad, a Macbook Air, and an iMac. It was a perfect illustration of the power and glory behind Apple’s success, its elegance, its simplicity, and its combination of hardware and software. (My first thought of the image was to compare it with the impish desk lamp in Pixar’s famous “Luxo Jr.” short film.) Tim Cook ended the event by stating: “This is our vision of personal technology, and we’re just getting started.”He also thanked, on behalf of himself and Apple’s top executives, all the employees who worked so hard to make the products Apple showed off on Thursday. Steve Jobs used to do that too. But Tim Cook comes off as more sincere. More, there’s no better word for it, believable.