In a year when the spread of COVID-19 made bringing large crowds together impossible, companies around the world had to reevaluate their love affair with the live product launch. Packing hundreds of attendees into extravagant venues to hang on every word of company executives was never going to be possible in an era of social distancing. Instead, events moved online, and many changed completely in the process as companies dropped risky product demonstrations in favor of slick prerecorded video segments. These events effectively turned from live launches into infomercials, and it makes me wonder how the likes of Apple, Amazon, Google, Sony, or Microsoft will be able to go back.
It’s a striking change, thanks in part to how consistent the format for most launches has stayed over the last three decades. In 1984, Apple CEO Steve Jobs showed off the Macintosh’s features through onstage demonstrations, a slideshow presentation, and video segments like the famous Ridley Scott-directed ad. Decades later, in 2019, the format had barely changed. When Apple CEO Tim Cook launched the iPhone 11 alongside a host of other devices last year, the budgets may have been bigger, the product list longer, and the demos more polished, but the whole event followed the same playbook.
One day after Samsung held a similarly traditional in-person event in February to unveil its Galaxy S20 smartphones, the GSM Association canceled Mobile World Congress, an annual trade show that was due to take place in Barcelona. The announcement didn’t come out of the blue — multiple companies, including LG, Nvidia, Intel, Vivo, Sony, and Amazon, had already dropped out — but it made it clear to the industry that the days of business as usual were over.
But even in a pandemic year, especially a year where many needed new equipment to adapt to new ways of working, gadgets still needed to come out. The question became how to launch them. Early on, many companies appeared to simply take the presentations they would have otherwise done in person and move them online. The reduced audience noise was the only hint that Huawei’s P40 series launch event in March wasn’t happening in a typical room full of journalists, while OnePlus was more upfront about the empty auditorium in which it launched its 8 series. Sony didn’t even bother with a big empty room for its PS5 Game Developers Conference presentation. Instead, it opted to have the console’s lead system architect, Mark Cerny, outline its capabilities in front of what appeared to be a green screen.
Before long, however, companies were experimenting with formats that would have never been possible with an in-person audience. Samsung, for example, had giant augmented reality versions of its devices appear during its August Unpacked event live stream for its onstage presenters to pretend to gawp at. The presentation may have been happening live, but these elements wouldn’t have been possible with a regular audience present.
No one shifted quicker or more completely to a new presentation style than Apple. Its live product launches gave way to streamlined prerecorded presentations filled with computer-generated graphs and sweeping transitions around the firm’s monolithic donut-shaped headquarters (often nicknamed “the spaceship”). The first of these was its Worldwide Developers Conference keynote in June, but it used similar formats for its trio of hardware launches later in the year. Other companies, like Google and Amazon, followed suit.
They may have changed their launches primarily for health and safety, but they gained a lot from their new approach. Presentations could be more dynamic and densely packed with information as they were honed to their essential elements. These new launches were also less reliant on the often-shaky onstage charisma of company executives. But most importantly, these presentations removed the possibility of anything going wrong.
The tech world has a long and illustrious history of onstage mishaps — whether it’s an LG robot that repeatedly fails to respond to commands, the Tesla Cybertruck’s supposedly bulletproof glass that smashed not once but twice after being hit by a ball bearing, Apple’s new facial recognition security failing to recognize faces, or Microsoft’s speech recognition technology failing to recognize speech. Live demonstrations always carry the risk of things going sideways. Sometimes nothing goes wrong onstage at all, but an audience’s laughter will shatter the illusion that $999 is a reasonable price to pay for a monitor stand.
But the risk of failure means a live demonstration is that much more impressive when it goes right, like Google’s demonstration of its Glass eyewear at its I/O developer conference back in 2012. “This can go wrong in about 500 different ways,” was how Google co-founder Sergey Brin introduced the demo, which saw a group live-stream their skydive down to San Francisco’s Moscone Center using Google Glass. It was an excessive, over-the-top display, but it left little doubt that the device was capable of what Google showed.
Few launches are as over-the-top as this, but everything from a demonstration of a voice assistant to new augmented reality developer tools is made that little bit more believable by watching it happen live.
And yet, a live demonstration is no guarantee of authenticity. Take the presenters who played Kinect Star Wars at Microsoft’s E3 press conference in 2010, who appeared to be miming along with the on-screen action rather than controlling it directly. Other showcases give unfinished products a bit of a helping hand, like when the original iPhone’s antennas had to be connected to wires running offstage during its 2007 unveiling to make up for its unstable Wi-Fi radio software. In some cases, we’re so conditioned to expect trickery that an onstage hiccup can actually make a presentation more impressive by revealing that it’s being done for real, like when Uncharted 4 co-director Bruce Straley found himself onstage without the controller to actually play the game at Sony’s E3 presentation. The resulting 30 seconds of idle animation was enough to prove that the subsequent gameplay was definitely being played live.
Live demos don’t prove that what you’re seeing is real, but they’re still a lot more believable than something prepared ahead of time. A prerecorded infomercial just doesn’t have the same stakes.
In 2020, every presentation went off without a hitch, but it was hard not to doubt what we were being shown. Apple attempted to re-create some of the impact of a live event during its WWDC 2020 presentation when Craig Federighi revealed that a previous macOS Big Sur demonstration had actually taken place on Macs running Apple Silicon rather than Intel chips. But considering any crashes or hitches could have been easily edited out, the revelation didn’t have the same impact as it would have. Most remained skeptical of the company’s claims until they were actually able to use the laptops for themselves months later.
2020’s shift in product launches saw companies trade risky live demonstrations for tightly scripted videos. The question now is how quickly they’ll want to go back when it’s safe to do so. For some, I suspect the control they’ve had this year will be hard to give up. They’ll have seen how consistent and reliable a virtual launch can be, and the idea of returning to the unpredictability of doing things live won’t seem worth the effort.
Personally, I hope most companies avoid the temptation. Live launches might be fraught, logistical nightmares, but they’re also an opportunity to have a real impact and show why a new device, service, or game is actually worth paying attention to. Journalists will always exist to eventually separate reality from marketing, but a show-stopping event can be the thing that gets people interested enough to read a review in the first place.