A lesson from Apple's launch of the iPhone X

The iPhone X (pronounced “iPhone 10”) was touted as the next leap forward in smartphones. It is the first smartphone from Apple to feature a full-screen display, it has “Super Retina” resolution, wireless charging and more. Apple revealed it to the world on 12 September 2017 at a special event at the Steve Jobs Theatre.

One of these new features is Apple’s face recognition technology. Gone is the digital fingerprint that has allowed iPhone users to open their phones in recent years. Now, with the iPhone X, you hold your phone up and look at it. The iPhone recognizes your face and then opens.

Except when it doesn’t.

This is what happened when Craig Federighi, Apple’s Senior Vice President of Software Engineering, tried to demonstrate the new feature.

Ouch! Another awkward presentation moment for the history books.
So, what happened? Is Apple’s face recognition technology a massive fail? I doubt it. In fact, Apple has offered an explanation.

Prior to the demonstration, different people had been handling the phone that Federighi first tried to open. What nobody realized was that phone was trying to recognize the faces of those people. Because none of those people had Federighi’s face, the phone did not open. However, it was registering several unsuccessful attempts to log in. After a certain number, the device blocked face recognition—as intended—and required a passcode to open.

Apple had an embarrassing moment launching the iPhone XI find this explanation plausible. I have an iPhone 6s that has digital fingerprint recognition. If I press the home button several times with a finger other than the one registered with my phone, it locks and requires me to enter the passcode. It’s a good safety feature.

So Federighi’s iPhone X worked the way it was supposed to. But it didn’t look like it at the time. Instead, it was an uncomfortable 15 seconds that required Federighi to switch to a backup. Fifteen seconds out of a two-hour event and yet those 15 seconds have generated a lot of discussion in the press and on social media.

Those 15 seconds have raised doubts in the minds of some people as to the robustness of the technology. Those 15 seconds even resulted in a plunge in the price of Apple stock, although the drop was short-lived and quickly reversed.

In an earlier post entitled Ten Tips for Using Props in a Presentation, I offered some ideas on how to make sure things run smoothly when you use props. One of the tips was as follows:

Make sure the prop works. The more complicated the prop, the greater the chance that something can go wrong. Test it, test it and then test it again beforehand. This is especially important if the prop forms a key part of the presentation; for example, if it is an invention that you are revealing to the public.

For the iPhone X demonstration, Apple should have known that the phone would lock if different people had been handling it. The last person to handle the phone before the demonstration should have been Federighi himself. He should have opened it a couple of times using face recognition to make sure that it was ready to go.

Embed from Getty Images

To his credit, Federighi did have a backup plan—which I also discuss in my earlier post—a second iPhone X. Even so, it would have been preferable had Federighi had the presence of mind to explain Apple’s lockout feature, enter the passcode, close the phone and open it again with face recognition. To be fair, he would have had to do all these mental gymnastics quickly and in the heat of the moment and with the eyes of the world upon him.

Nonetheless, the incident was a valuable reminder of the importance of preparation and how, even then, mistakes will happen.

Even Steve Jobs had days like this.

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6 Replies to “A lesson from Apple's launch of the iPhone X”

  1. It is also plausible that this was intended. These people are intelligent. “Let’s do a classical fuck up, it worked for Steve too several times.”
    The result is the same as then: everybody is talking about the iPhone X. It might it be a clever scam. Or not?

    1. Thanks for the comment, Erik.
      It’s an interesting theory and for sure there have been events where people have planned “mistakes”, but if I had to bet money, I would say that this was real. First, it looked real enough; second, I think that the feature (face recognition) was too important for Apple to mess with; and third, Craig Federighi is not Steve Jobs.
      So I don’t think it was a scam, although everybody certainly is talking about it! Cheers!

  2. I watched the entire presentation. I’ll admit that I didn’t give this a second thought till reading your thoughtful and analytical article. Thanks for pointing out.
    I was soaking in the magic and inexorable march of engineering, and the world class quality of the theatre/presentation etc.. Best presentation practice after best presentation practice (technical content) on splendid display. 100% agree that relentless practice and testing has to be the norm; specially for events of this magnitude. I can’t imagine that they did not practice or test adequately. This also serves (me at least) as a reminder that it is not likely that one can cover all scenarios. Sooner or later there will be a tech glitch. It’s a safe bet. So prepare for the glitch as well. Sort of like improv training. Follow some good guidelines and rules.
    On Thursday I gave a talk to an engineering / quality audience & faced 2 technical glitches. Both tech/audio related. The AV person was missing. First the mic began echoing unacceptably, and then the video sound speaker did not work. I’ve developed a few laugh lines that I use in such situations.
    This time I used a variant of (Lord of the Rings / Aragorn at the Black Gate) this famous line: A day may come when the courage of men fail … but it is not this day)
    I joyfully observed that “A day may come when technology does not test me … but it is not this day. Got enough of a laugh and goodwill till I fixed the problems.
    My insurance policy against tech challenges.
    Hope it helps.

    1. Rashid, thanks for the comment. You are right, sooner or later there will be a glitch (tech or otherwise) if you speak often enough. Sticking with Apple for a moment, a couple of years ago I read Walter Isaacson’s brilliant biography of Steve Jobs. Whenever there was a description of a big presentation that Jobs did, I would put the book down, find the presentation on YouTube and watch it, then resume the book to learn the backstory. An interesting way to go through the book but I highly recommend it for those keen on public speaking. I remember that for one of the events, Jobs was furious because the black curtain at the back of the stage just wasn’t black enough!
      Congratulations on your talk and your brilliant line adapted from Lord of the Rings. I might just have to steal that one day!
      Finally, I have been doing improv here in Geneva for several years. Our group is called the Renegade Saints. We perform once a month in Geneva from September to May. We also offer classes and corporate workshops. Improv has brought a whole new dimension to my speaking as it allows me to be truly in the moment and better equipped to react to the unexpected.
      Thanks again!

      1. Thank you John.
        I’ve read (studied actually) Isaacson’s book on Steve Jobs and have been following all Apple presentations for a long time. They have transformed product launches and technical content presentation to a theatrical experience. Starting from Steve Jobs 1984 Macintosh launch. The perfection story I remember from the book is about the lighting with the iMac launch not being perfect :).
        You’re most welcome use the “insurance policy” line I occasionally use. It’s certainly not stealing. Just some banter & humor.
        I know about your improv passion/work. I’ve been following you for a while now. Do I recall right? … your TI Convention breakout/workshop was about improv too?
        We have some common interests and common hungers and I admire your clear-thinking analysis. GOOD LUCK. I hope our paths cross some day.

        1. Thank you, Rashid. Yes, you remember correctly. I did a big talk at the TMI Convention in Washington last year. It was a lot of fun and well received. And yes, I look forward to the day when we meet in person. Exchanging messages on the Internet is nice, but nothing can replace face-to-face interaction.

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