Apple blends pioneering tech with pleasing the crowd

Apple’s iPhone launch began with a moving tribute to the company’s late founder Steve Jobs — and ended with a talking poop emoji.

The two hours in between saw the biggest leaps forward for the iPhone in years. They also saw the launch of “Animoji”, an iPhone feature that superimposes a user’s expressions and speech onto animated emoji, from cartoon monkeys and pandas to robots and poop.

The event’s juxtaposition of sentimentality and frivolity speaks to the balance that Apple must strike between extending its track record of breakthrough technology and delivering the crowd-pleasing features that will persuade millions of people to pay $1,000 for its new iPhone X. 

“It sums up the tightrope walk that Apple faces at these events,” says Geoff Blaber, analyst at CCS Insight. “They are trying to appeal to consumers who are watching the keynote, investors and partners in the industry.”

A decade since the launch of the first iPhone, Apple’s product events still captivate the media and consumers unlike any other company in Silicon Valley. Holding Tuesday’s event at Apple Park, the new headquarters that Jobs helped design, gave the company a unique opportunity to look back at its history while also invoking the start of a new era.

“Steve’s spirit and timeless philosophy on life will always be the DNA of Apple,” said Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive.

When the press conference began, Apple asked attendees to turn off all their screens — most of them on products it had made and sold. After the Macbooks were shut and iPhones pocketed, the voice of Jobs resounded across the darkened auditorium.

“Somehow, in the act of making something with a great deal of care and love, something is transmitted there,” Jobs said in the recording. “We need to be true to who we are and remember what’s really important to us. That’s what’s going to keep Apple, Apple — if we keep us, us.”

Almost two hours after that emotional introduction, Sir Jonathan Ive, Apple’s top designer and heir to Jobs’ legacy, was demonstrating Animoji in a video — poops, unicorns and all. The ability to “bring emojis to life”, as Sir Jonathan put it, may be playful but the technology behind it is serious and complex.

The iPhone X can track facial expressions from some 50 muscles, using its combination of infrared camera and “flood illuminator” to project and scan thousands of tiny dots cast across the user’s face. These signals are then synthesised using neural networks, a form of artificial intelligence. The system is only available in the new iPhone X, which priced at up to $1,149 is among most expensive smartphones ever sold.

“If you were wondering what humanity would do when given to the most advanced facial tracking technology available, now you have your answer,” joked Craig Federighi, Apple’s head of software engineering, as he demonstrated “Animoji” on stage. 

The facial scanner has more serious applications, too. A new “Face ID” security system ensures only the iPhone’s owner can open and use it, as well as providing authentication in apps such as Apple Pay. Thanks to its depth sensor, Face ID will be harder to fool than other facial recognition systems.

The whole system is also open to third-party app developers who want to take advantage of “augmented reality” — a new tech trend that allows digital objects to be placed in the real world, as first popularised in Snapchat and the Pokémon Go mobile game.

“We believe AR has the potential to become the next killer app that accelerates smartphone upgrades and drives increased services monetisation and growth,” said analysts at Morgan Stanley in a note on Tuesday. 

Innovations such as Face ID, which some analysts have felt were missing from recent years’ iPhone launches, are particularly important when so many other smartphone features have become commoditised and ubiquitous. The iPhone X’s display, for example, uses similar OLED technology to that which first appeared years ago in smartphones made by South Korean companies Samsung and LG.

“Beyond what Apple managed to do with Face ID, there is very little now between what Samsung has introduced — and introduced first — and what Apple has delivered in the iPhone X,” says Mr Blaber. “There is less to distinguish the hardware now than ever before.”

Apple is smart to focus on the camera as a source of differentiation, says Benedict Evans, a partner at Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. “The one place where there is more improvement needed is the camera,” says Mr Evans. “In everything else, the perceived improvement is slowing down.”

Mr Evans notes that almost every feature revealed by Apple on Tuesday relies on custom chips that it designs in-house, and AI capabilities such as machine learning. “They are leveraging the stuff that is easy for them and hard for other people,” he says. These technologies also provide the “building blocks” for future Apple products, such as AR glasses, he adds.

For many consumers, the camera is a more important part of the smartphone than the phone itself, says Carolina Milanesi, analyst at Creative Strategies. With Face ID and “Animoji”, the camera becomes more than just a way of taking pictures. “It is creating, in a way, the union between you and your phone,” Ms Milanesi says. “The phone is learning from you [using AI] and doing things for you, by you just looking at it.”

Apple may not always win on a feature-by-feature comparison against rivals such as Samsung’s Galaxy S8. Instead, it “brings everything together and packages it into an experience”, says Ms Milanesi. “The individual features add up to something unique.” 

That is Apple’s enduring lesson from Jobs. From Apple’s earliest days, he insisted that its designers and engineers should combine hardware, software and services to create devices that feel personal, familiar and easy to use.

He might never have expected, though, that his philosophy of connecting technology to the liberal arts would culminate in a talking poop animation.

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