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What is Apple without its events? A new iPad—and era, perhaps—arrives via press release

March 19, 2020, 2:45 PM UTC

For about as long as Apple has been a company, events have been core to its business. Steve Jobs, its founder, had a preternatural ability to engross, entertain, and sell from the stage. His keynote addresses were worthy of P.T. Barnum, the master showman himself. They were legendary, so much so that Apple fanatics had a name for them: Stevenotes.

Through the Tim Cook era, Apple’s events have continued to be a central part of the company’s culture and marketing strategy, even if they have lost some of that inimitable Jobsian luster. They build hype, fuel rumors, entice fans, and offer the tech giant a stage upon which to present its meticulously manufactured image—and products—to the world, all on its own terms.

Wednesday’s surprise announcement of a new iPad Pro and Macbook Air suddenly prompts the question: What is Apple without the Apple event?

As the coronavirus pandemic lights up the globe, organizers have been scuttling conferences left and right, Apple seemingly included. The Mobile World Congress in Barcelona—nixed. Facebook’s annual F8 developers conference—switched to a live-stream and local events. Google I/O—online-only.

But for Apple, the changeup is particularly noteworthy. Instead of hosting a March event, as Apple sporadically has over the past decade, the company unveiled its latest products…in a press release. Not quite as flashy as a hushed theater where onlookers are held in the grip of executives’ carefully honed overtures.

This isn’t the first time Apple has announced product updates solely by press release, of course. But it is rather unusual for a major iPad update, like the new iPad Pro. (Not unprecedented, however; and last year the company unveiled its AirPods Pro and second-generation AirPods this way.) Still, it’s more common for varieties of Mac computer to get the press release treatment.

A spokesperson for Apple declined to comment about whether Apple ever intended to host a March event.

The March event isn’t the only apparent change on the docket. Like Google, Apple said it plans to move its upcoming developer event, the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), to a purely virtual form. It is the first time in 31 years, since the program’s inception, that Apple will take that approach. “We are delivering WWDC 2020 this June in an innovative way,” said Phil Schiller, Apple’s head of marketing, in a statement. The online confab will be a “learning experience,” he said.

Can Apple replicate the magic of its events online? In some ways, it already has. Far more people tune in to the company’s events via live-stream than squeeze into the Steve Jobs Theater at the company’s headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. But there is still a live audience in the frame, and Apple manages, somehow, to convey that bubbling frisson, that electricity-in-the-room, to those outside.

Compared with the other coronavirus-induced disruptions Apple is facing, the event interruptions and press releases may seem like small potatoes. Supply chain issues in China, the disease outbreak’s epicenter, have greatly affected production for products like the iPhone. And Apple has recently closed its retail stores all around the world, so far reopening locations only in Greater China.

Given events’ significance to Apple, it’s worth considering the potential implications, even if they are unclear. “WWDC is a big part of how Apple generates enthusiasm in the developer community, and that is indirectly tied to how robust the App Store is,” says Jeff Kvaal, an analyst who covers Apple at Nomura Instinet, a Wall Street research outfit. “It is relevant, and I’m sure Apple would rather do it than not do it, for many reasons. But the challenge we have as financial analysts is, it’s not immediately clear how we might tie that to Apple’s services business over the September quarter,” he notes, referring to the impact on software-related sales.

Guy Kawasaki, chief evangelist for Canva, a design tooling startup, reminisced about his time at Apple, marketing the Macintosh computer in the ’80s, and he suggests to Fortune that it might be time for a new approach.

“In the good old days, it would be Steve Jobs and standing ovations and throngs of believers, and worshippers would fall to the ground in amazement,” Kawasaki says of Apple’s events. “We can wistfully remember those days, but those days are gone.” It’s going take a new kind of way to introduce products, given the exigencies of the pandemic and other major societal changes underway, he adds.

“Many companies will realize, ‘Why are we renting these spaces and buying hundreds of bottles of wine and thousands of pounds of shrimp and cheese and prosciutto and grapes?’ We should just go digital all the time,” Kawasaki continues. “We may look back and say this was a turning point for climate change, when people realized they didn’t have to go fly someplace.”

The pandemic may accelerate businesses coming up with alternatives to the Big Show. But, then again, nothing quite captures that in-person magic of a Stevenote.

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