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Who wore it best? Rating Big Tech’s product debuts

October 23, 2020, 1:48 PM UTC

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In just the past month, Amazon unveiled all its new Alexa goodies (including the wacky drone security cam), Google offered phones and speakers with new A.I. tricks, and Apple, well, Apple broke the bank to show off new iPhones and a mini-speaker imbued with Siri powers. Over the summer, Microsoft also officially launched its gorgeous dual-screened phone via a virtual event.

YouTube’s top tech reviewer Marques Brownlee (aka MKBHD) and his production manager and co-host Andrew Manganelli assessed all of those presentations in their most recent Waveform podcast episode. Ranking the players from top to bottom, Apple’s events lapped the field, boosted by impressive video production values alongside desirable new gadgets. Events by Microsoft and upstart phone maker OnePlus followed. Google and a couple of Samsung events brought up the rear, critiqued for having more advertising-like presentation styles.

But power rankings aren’t Data Sheet’s style. Let’s hand out some awards instead. It’s for sort-of-virtual events, so let’s dub them the Hallidays.

And the Halliday for sheer gorgeousness goes to Apple’s “Hi, Speed” event, which debuted the HomePod mini from the set of a beautiful two-story home that could easily slip into a Wes Anderson movie. The shot zooming down from the sky above Apple’s spaceship headquarters to VP Lisa Jackson standing on the roof, the wind lightly tussling her hair as she spoke, was just phenomenal. And the time lapse sunset video? Très magnifique.

Google grabs the “coconut shells for horses” Halliday, which honors the memorable Monty Python scene of turning necessity into invention, for its “Launch Night In” event. Unlike Apple’s bazillion dollar showcase, Google went for a stripped-down aesthetic and close-up shots of its presenters at its Pixel event. Google used tape on the floor of a warehouse space to outline different rooms. And Shalini Govil-Pai, the head of Google TV, was relatable telling stories about watching TV as a kid. Extra points for the montages of bloopers and silly moments.

Although Amazon showed off some cool products (see: the drone cam) at its 2020 Alexa event, its production values were not terrific and some of the presenters were a little stilted. But the company’s customer-centric culture shone through video clips of actual customers using the actual products. Amazon gets the 2020 Halliday for “doing it IRL.”

And that leaves Microsoft, where Surface leader Panos Panay wore his heart on his sleeve as he showed off the Surface Duo. “Empowering people includes sometimes challenging conventional thinking,” Panay said, the excitement over his folding not-a-phone phone leaping from his voice. That’s worthy of the Halliday for most passionate event.

So what happens when the pandemic recedes? Will Apple and its rivals bring back the looser, louder format of presenting live in front of big audiences? Or are we fated to watch beautiful, carefully edited recordings from now on?

I’m not sure. But if you rewatch the very end of last year’s iPhone 11 event, and see the ear-to-ear smile on Tim Cook’s face as the applause washes over him and he gives his team a big thumb’s up, I think you have your answer.

Aaron Pressman

@ampressman

aaron.pressman@fortune.com

NEWSWORTHY

Look, ma, no hands. After years of promises, Tesla CEO Elon Musk finally delivered "full self driving" software to a small group of hand-picked customers. Tesla owners who got the update quickly started posting YouTube videos, some of which The Verge has helpfully collected. A much wider rollout is planned by year, so let's hope this works.

When the lights go down in the city. Danielle noted the demise of Quibi yesterday and the past 24 hours has led to an outpouring of post-mortems. Katie Baker at The Ringer may have summed it up best when she wrote that the company "died as it lived: with a tweet that I initially mistook for a joke." Jeffrey Katzenberg had a final hurrah as Quibi boss on CNBC. You may be sad that we won't have KBerg to kick around anymore, but fear not. “I’ve got to get on that horse and find the next mountain to charge up," he said. "It’s the only thing I know how to do and I’ve got a lot to prove.” A lot to prove indeed.

The bloom is off the chip. On Wall Street, it was disappointment all around, as Intel, Seagate Technology, and Limelight Networks all fell after reporting quarterly results. Intel reported revenue fell 4% to $18.3 billion, as booming laptop sales covered somewhat for declining (and more profitable) data center chip sales. Intel's stock, previously down 10% this year, lost another 10% in pre-market trading on Friday. Disk maker Seagate said its sales dropped 10% to $2.3 billion. Its shares, already down 13% in 2020, fell 4%. And Limelight, which helps distribute content across the Internet, surprised analysts with a loss of $4 million. Its stock, already up 51% this year, plummeted 20% in pre-market trading. IPOs also disappointed, as McAfee relisted after nine years of being owned by others only to see its stock price drop almost 7% on Thursday.

A very excellent servant, but a terrible master. While breaking their own rules to vote on a Supreme Court candidate with no Democrats in the room, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee also voted to subpoena Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg. The pair are being called to answer for their companies' handling of a New York Post story about Hunter Biden's emails. Speaking of breaking rules, a California court ordered Uber and Lyft to classify their drivers as employees under a state law passed last year. The companies can still appeal to the state's Supreme Court while the ballot measure to repeal the new law, Proposition 22, goes before voters next month.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Steve Jobs' imprint on Apple's culture and organizational structure remains. Providing rare insight into how the company works, Apple University dean Joel Podolny and professor Morten Hansen have an essay in the Harvard Business Review detailing some of its leadership and management strategies.

Apple has hundreds of specialist teams across the company, dozens of which may be needed for even one key component of a new product offering. For example, the dual-lens camera with portrait mode required the collaboration of no fewer than 40 specialist teams: silicon design, camera software, reliability engineering, motion sensor hardware, video engineering, core motion, and camera sensor design, to name just a few. How on earth does Apple develop and ship products that require such coordination? The answer is collaborative debate. Because no function is responsible for a product or a service on its own, cross-functional collaboration is crucial.

When debates reach an impasse, as some inevitably do, higher-level managers weigh in as tiebreakers, including at times the CEO and the senior VPs. To do this at speed with sufficient attention to detail is challenging for even the best of leaders, making it all the more important that the company fill many senior positions from within the ranks of its VPs, who have experience in Apple’s way of operating.

FOR YOUR WEEKEND READING PLEASURE

A few great long reads I came across this week:

How a Malaysian Immigrant in Idaho Became the Go-To Expert on Podcasting (Marker)
Nick Quah’s newsletter vaulted him from obscurity to industry expert — a formula everyone is now trying to crack

Inside Gravity’s daring mission to make jetpacks a reality (Wired UK)
Inventors like Richard Browning have been trying to build jetpacks for a century. Now they’re here, what do we do with them?

How a downed internet balloon produced an unlikely love story (Rest of World)
A few hundred kilometers south of the Brazilian border and four and a half hours by bus from the capital of Montevideo lie Lavalleja and Treinta y Tres, rural departments in Uruguay’s bucolic interior.

This Teacher Went Back to School. A Team of Epidemiologists Tracked Her Moves. (Elemental)
Real life meets public health advice.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Here’s what Amazon’s new Echo speakers are like By Jonathan Vanian

Tesla shares pop after a big earnings beat—but its jump to the S&P 500 is hardly a ‘sure thing’ By Anne Sraders

White House and Twitter deny hacker accessed Trump’s Twitter with password ‘maga2020!’ By Robert Hackett

76% of American CEOs say they may shrink office space By Lance Lambert

Bitcoin surges to a 2020 high on PayPal’s embrace By Jeff John Roberts and Nicolas Rapp

Living with uncertainty: How leaders at American Airlines, Salesforce, Slack, and Diageo are moving past crisis mode By Maria Aspan

The perils of letting social media titans correct misinformation By Sarah Kreps and Douglas Kriner

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BEFORE YOU GO

The Guggenheim Museum awarded its biennial Hugo Boss Prize for "significant achievement in contemporary art." If you have never seen the winner's photography, you are in for a treat. Deana Lawson's nomination video, just 6 minutes long, is a great place to start. Have a great weekend.