On Ben Thompson’s “Whither Liberal Arts?”

Ben Thompson over at Stratechery wrote a great piece on Apple’s Fall Event. Thompson’s main point about the fall event is that Apple does not seem as effective at communicating its vision for iPad.

The only issue I take with Thompson’s piece are his comparisons to the keynotes for the original iPad and the iPad 2. In that first year, the iPad was still a very new product in a new category. Apple’s messaging had to be much more explicit about defining and communicating the vision for the product.

If you recall the original iPad Keynote in 2010, you’ll remember that Steve Jobs spent a good portion leading up to the big reveal explaining with why the product should exist, and what it’s purpose was. After the reveal, he proceeded to sit down in a Corbusier LC2 and demo the iPad, role-playing as the user. People didn’t have any idea what the iPad could do and what it would become. Apple had to explicitly explain their vision for the product. That permeated much of the advertising for the iPad over the first few months (see "What is iPad?" and "iPad is").

The iPad 2 event in 2011 didn’t have the gravitas of introducing a new product category, but it was the moment that proposed the idea that the iPad is a great content creation device on its own merit. The GarageBand demo, and the following ad campaign (see “Love”, and “We’ll Always”) highlighted this in a very obvious way.

The new iPads are more mature products. The iPad is not a new idea, and the general public knows what the iPad is. Apple has spent the last 3 years using promoting the iPad’s vision explicitly and doesn’t necessarily have to keep hitting the same “manifesto”-type notes in how communicates the product. To be fair, the marketing/pro cycle for the new iPads is just starting, and I’d like to see some more ads before I completely agree with Thompson. I don’t think it’s fair to compare where we are now with iPad Air to the introduction of the original.

Let me be clear though, the 2013 Fall keynote (on its own merit) was not great. I’m not crazy about the “stuff-in-everything-except-the-iPhone” Fall Event that Apple has had these last two years. If anything, these events simply lack focus. This is especially evident when you compare this month’s and last month’s events. It serves the purpose of announcing all of the products in one big shot, but at the same time it undermines how effective Apple can be in communicating its vision for them individually.

The iPads didn’t get much stage time and weren’t featured in any demos. What is particularly disconcerting is that Apple has not done a single on-stage demo for the iPad this year. Nothing at WWDC, nothing at last month’s iPhone event, and nothing at the Fall Event. Perhaps if they moved the iPad reveal to the middle of the keynote they could have done demos showing off how the iPad and Mac apps work together. By waiting to reveal the iPad at the end of the event, they weren’t able to demo the new apps and the benefits of 64-bit without outing the new products. Imagine if Xander Soren had demoed GarageBand with 32-tracks on an iPad Air. That’s something that’s never been done before, and would have showed what the product can do in a very meaningful way.

While the new “Pencil” ad was good at introducing the iPad Air, Thompson is right to say it doesn’t go on to define a vision going forward. Considering that the last new iPad ads (“Alive" and "Together”) were introduced eight months ago, I’m surprised we didn’t see more on this front. Apple has aired some beautiful, moving ads for the iPhone (the “Every Day” series), which really tell the story of how the product empowers the user. We have yet to see anything comparable for the iPad this year.

Since we are still at the very beginning of the new product lifecycle for the iPad, I’m willing to wait and see how Apple promotes and messages the new product. This year’s run of iPhone ads have shown that the company is very capable of crafting stories to communicate the vision for a product, and there’s no reason that couldn’t pull off something similar for the iPad. If Apple continues to focus on the hardware and not how people are empowered by the iPad, I think it’s fair to say there is an issue.