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Why Apple is announcing the next iPhone on the day before its big encryption fight

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Using the keynote as a bully pulpit

Apple just pulled off a major scheduling coup. After months of rumors, the company announced today that its next product keynote will come on March 21st, just one day before the company defends itself against government efforts to break security on a phone linked to the San Bernardino attacks.

We don't know exactly why the move was made, but it's hard to believe that timing is a coincidence. The court date has been set almost a month, and Apple is typically very deliberate when it comes to scheduling. It's even harder to believe Cook will let the event go by without commenting on the company's legal fight, which has dominated the company's public relations efforts for the past month. It's a very big stage, and Tim Cook is primed to make use of it.

The line between politics and marketing is not as clear as it seems

It's a smart move, as Apple faces down a long and tricky political fight over the San Bernardino iPhone. The government has been playing hardball from the beginning, arranging a group of survivors to side against Apple before the initial order was even filed. It's only natural that Apple should use every option it has in fighting back. The company's keynotes still command a global audience that's unmatched in the industry or the world at large. The right comments there could rally the faithful to Apple's cause, just when the company needs public support.

At the same time, Apple is playing into one of the government's most persistent lines of attack. From the beginning, the FBI and its allies have portrayed the company's privacy position as nothing more than marketing. As two Brookings experts put it, Apple is selling you a phone, not civil liberties. Of course, Apple and nearly all civil liberties groups disagree — but as Donald Trump can attest, the line between politics and marketing is not as clear as it seems. It's possible to win politicians over, as recent comments from Senator Lindsey Graham show. But setting Apple's legal fight alongside a new set of iPhones and watchbands runs the risk of driving home the government's point. If it's not part of the pitch, why would you say it at a product announcement?

It doesn't have to play out that way. Tim Cook knows how to handle the issue right, as his ABC interview showed. He knows how to talk about encryption seriously, balancing compassion with the broader threat of weakened security. But the close timing will set the stakes for the event very high indeed — and if it's poorly received, we won't have to wait long to find out.