If you want to see a great magic show today, take an hour to watch Steve Jobs introduce the iPhone in 2007. Ignore that it already looks insanely dated, and focus on how it's essentially just a 50-minute trick: a person on a stage exploits your optimism with theater, then surprises you by changing your reality. I'm far from the first person to recognize it; years ago MG Siegler saw Michael Caine describe how magic works in The Prestige, and ended up thinking what he really saw was an Apple keynote.
Are you watching closely?
Technology keynotes have been around a long time, even if the venues and hand gestures have changed. In Industrial Era trade shows people fainted from the excitement of electricity; today they use electricity to joke about fainting.
The new iPhone has video calling.......*faint*— Camille (@DulceDeCam) June 7, 2010
But Apple really forged the keynote as we know it, both by having a few genuinely surprising products up its sleeve, and by repeating a successful show format. The company has been doing it for a while — you can watch keynote presentations all the way back to when Apple introduced the original Mac, and their format has been largely the same ever since. Steve Jobs introducing the first iPod in 2001 looks a lot like Steve Jobs introducing the first iPad in 2010.
Apple may not always put on the best show in town anymore, and that's because the iPhone, even the smartphone in general, just isn't the greatest trick in the book like it used to be. (Especially if you're introducing yesterday's model.) So we may be more surprised by seeing weird holograms and crazy form-factors these days, but if you look across the technology industry, the iconic magic show is still being used everywhere.
First, a company sends invites to an event, usually with a dash of mystery. If there's a lot of interest, the curiosity fuels a machine of hype and speculation; companies may even give it a Fast and Furious-style nitrous boost with calculated leaks. Then, there's the big show. The CEO comes out. A gripping commercial is played. A curtain is raised. If you're lucky, a British man will massage you with superlatives until your body becomes a porridge.
The only thing that has really changed since 2007 is that the industry has adopted a consistent format. To compete, rival companies just raise the stakes for the audience. Qualcomm tried to make everyone think they were on an acid trip, and succeeded. Microsoft put a headset on people's faces to make them feel like they're on Mars. Google's version of the show once had a guy literally jump out of a plane.
The major technology keynote format has become so powerful and recognizable that it has seeped into how we depict the future in science fiction. It can be seen in film and television, and even in commercials; Jeff Goldblum currently plays a fake, keynote-giving Silicon Valley magnate as a joke for Apartments.com. The viral promotional video for Prometheus imagined a future where tech keynotes are so big that they'll take place in giant circular stadiums — not unlike one Apple is building right now.
The keynote is so important to Apple's identity that Tim Cook ended the latest iPhone event by talking about it. "This is probably the last product announcement in this Town Hall," Cook said. "The iPod was announced in this room." It was a brief eulogy for a venue that's hosted many of the shows that have defined the company, but also a preview of what's coming.
Within the next year, Apple plans to move 13,000 employees into a dramatic new corporate campus: an enormous, 2.8 million square-foot ring that looks like a spaceship. There's also a smaller spaceship on the campus: a circular church made of glass and carbon fiber. It's innovative in its own right; Apple says the new 120,000 square-foot, 1,000-seat theater is capped by an 80-ton composite roof. In other words, it's meant to sound as big as the company's ambitions.
We can't guess what the next truly surprising Apple product will be, but we can already imagine how it will be introduced.