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 iPhone X

I 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.

Like this article?

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on Linkdin
Share on Pinterest
Picture of mannerofspeaking


  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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

eight − six =


John delivered a keynote address about the importance of public speaking to 80 senior members of Gore’s Medical Device Europe team at an important sales event. He was informative, engaging and inspirational. Everyone was motivated to improve their public speaking skills. Following his keynote, John has led public speaking workshops for Gore in Barcelona and Munich. He is an outstanding speaker who thinks carefully about the needs of his audience well before he steps on stage.

Karsta Goetze

TA Leader, Gore and Associates

I first got in touch with John while preparing to speak at TED Global about my work on ProtonMail. John helped me to sharpen the presentation and get on point faster, making the talk more focused and impactful. My speech was very well received, has since reached almost 1.8 million people and was successful in explaining a complex subject (email encryption) to a general audience.

Andy Yen

CEO, Proton Technologies

John gave the opening keynote on the second day of our unit’s recent offsite in Geneva, addressing an audience of 100+ attendees with a wealth of tips and techniques to deliver powerful, memorable presentations. I applied some of these techniques the very next week in an internal presentation, and I’ve been asked to give that presentation again to senior management, which has NEVER happened before. John is one of the greatest speakers I know and I can recommend his services without reservation.

David Lindelöf

Senior Data Scientist, Expedia Group

After a morning of team building activities using improvisation as the conduit, John came on stage to close the staff event which was organised in Chamonix, France. His energy and presence were immediately felt by all the members of staff. The work put into the preparation of his speech was evident and by sharing some his own stories, he was able to conduct a closing inspirational speech which was relevant, powerful and impactful for all at IRU. The whole team left feeling engaged and motivated to tackle the 2019 objectives ahead. Thank you, John.

Umberto de Pretto

Secretary General, World Road Transport Organization

I was expecting a few speaking tips and tricks and a few fun exercises, but you went above and beyond – and sideways. You taught me to stand tall. You taught me to anchor myself. You taught me to breathe. You taught me to open up. You taught me to look people in the eye. You taught me to tell the truth. You taught me to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. I got more than I bargained for in the best possible way.

Thuy Khoc-Bilon

World Cancer Day Campaign Manager, Union for International Cancer Control

John gave a brilliant presentation on public speaking during the UN EMERGE programme in Geneva (a two days workshop on leadership development for a group of female staff members working in the UN organizations in Geneva). His talk was inspirational and practical, thanks to the many techniques and tips he shared with the audience. His teaching can dramatically change our public speaking performance and enable us as presenters to have a real and powerful impact. Thank you, John, for your great contribution!

Sara Canna

HR Specialist, World Health Organization

John is a genuine communication innovator. His seminars on gamification of public speaking learning and his interactive Rhetoric game at our conference set the tone for change and improvement in our organisation. The quality of his input, the impact he made with his audience and his effortlessly engaging style made it easy to get on board with his core messages and won over some delegates who were extremely skeptical as to the efficacy of games for learning. I simply cannot recommend him highly enough.

Thomas Scott

National Education Director, Association of Speakers Clubs UK

John joined our Global Sales Meeting in Segovia, Spain and we all participated in his "Improv(e) your Work!" session. I say “all” because it really was all interactive, participatory, learning and enjoyable. The session surprised everybody and was a fresh-air activity that brought a lot of self-reflection and insights to improve trust and confidence in each other inside our team. It´s all about communication and a good manner of speaking!"

Jon Lopez

General Manager Europe, Hayward Industries

Thank you very much for the excellent presentation skills session. The feedback I received was very positive. Everyone enjoyed the good mix of listening to your speech, co-developing a concrete take-away and the personal learning experience. We all feel more devoted to the task ahead, more able to succeed and an elevated team spirit. Delivering this in a short time, both in session and in preparation, is outstanding!

Henning Dehler

CFO European Dairy Supply Chain & Operations, Danone

Thanks to John’s excellent workshop, I have learned many important tips and techniques to become an effective public speaker. John is a fantastic speaker and teacher, with extensive knowledge of the field. His workshop was a great experience and has proven extremely useful for me in my professional and personal life.

Eric Thuillard

Senior Sales Manager, Sunrise Communications

John’s presentation skills training was a terrific investment of my time. I increased my skills in this important area and feel more comfortable when speaking to an audience. John provided the right mix between theory and practice.

Diego Brait

Director of the Jura Region, BKW Energie AG

Be BOLD. Those two words got stuck in my head and in the heads of all those ADP leaders and associates that had the privilege to see John on stage. He was our keynote speaker at our annual convention in Barcelona, and his message still remains! John puts his heart in every word. Few speakers are so credible, humble and yet super strong with large audiences!

Guadalupe Garcia

Senior Director and Talent Partner, ADP International