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On Monday, I attended Apple’s very different kind of special event at Steve Jobs Theater at Apple Park. There was no new hardware to unveil — new iPads, iMacs, and AirPods came the week before — so four new services took the show: Apple News+, Apple Card, Apple Arcade, and Apple TV+

Services Evolution

Each new service could be viewed as an evolution of an existing effort already underway at Apple.

Apple News+ builds on the foundation of the Apple News app, integrating magazines from Apple’s Texture acquisition alongside select newspapers and online publications. Apple Card is a much more involved take on the classic Apple Rewards card from Barclays, but a card that Apple controls. Apple Arcade builds on the work of the App Store and the success of the games category. And Apple TV+ feels like the modernization of the iTunes Movies and TV Shows business, similar to how Apple Music has taken front seat to iTunes Music store.

While the services announced are creative and potentially experimental, Apple has experience in each category already — and they’ve hired experts or collaborated with partners in areas less familiar. Nothing announced was as foreign as, say, Apple opening a hotel chain (although I’m sure it would be a very nice hotel … no 30-pin clocks, just wireless charging mats.)

The venue for Apple’s March 25th event is also notable. Apple has used Steve Jobs Theater for special events just twice before: the iPhone 8 and iPhone X event in September 2017, and the iPhone XR and iPhone XS event in September 2018. Apple has ventured to New York, Chicago, and San Jose throughout the year for other special events, saving its own venue for shareholder meetings and on-site staff gatherings.

Steve Jobs Theater served the audience well, including Hollywood celebrities (even Oprah was impressed with the elevator), and the creative use of the theater walls played well in the room when dynamic backdrops were used for each TV show pitch.

No new hardware meant no hands-on demo area though. This was my first experience at Steve Jobs Theater so I missed the scramble to photograph and video shiny new products.

Products In Use

Tim Cook set the theme of the event with a slide dedicated to the definition of the word service, leaving no question that there would be no new hardware on stage. The framing was intended to present services as core to Apple’s business just like hardware and software. Think about features like FaceTime and iMessage, Find My Friends and Find My iPhone, not just Apple Music iCloud Photos.

If Apple’s fall events are about upgraded hardware products and WWDC is about upgraded platforms and developer tools, Apple’s March event this year was about new ways to use those platforms on our devices. And yes, Apple’s business is to make money along the way.

For some, the event was too far a departure from announcements dedicated to new Mac hardware. But in the age of incremental speed boosts year-over-year, creative new ways to use all of our devices is welcome and arguably more entertaining.

Apple News+

The first new service to be unveiled was Apple News+, a paid version of the existing Apple News app. $9.99 per month for access to 300 top magazines, the LA Times and Wall Street Journal, and select online publications including The Skimm and TechCrunch Extra.

I was in the audience at SXSW last year when Eddy Cue announced that Apple was buying the digital magazine subscription service Texture. There’s something neat about seeing that acquisition materialize into Apple News+ a year later.

The proposition is interesting. If you really do want to read tons of magazines or content from the newspapers and digital publications included in Apple News+, the $9.99/month price is a great value. More sources will surely be added over time which will only make the price an even better value, and the one month free trial is useful for test driving the new service.

I’m not currently a big magazine reader, but I do see appeal in carefully written and selected stories captured in monthly issues as a contrast to the infinite stream of the online publishing world. Even if the same stories are available in both places, the magazine model ideally surfaces the best content and not just the latest or clickiest.

You’ll still experience some ads just like if you paid for a copy of the print magazine, but in my experience these can be hyper targeted based on the magazine’s category and often useful. I’m also interested in how similar content is presented in magazines compared to the web. Fewer words and more graphics can sometimes fill a page in interesting ways.

I’m playing with the free trial now but I’m not sure I’ll be an Apple News+ customer to start. I like access to Runner’s World magazine, but a print subscription for a single magazine can be a lot cheaper than the full Apple News+ experience if you don’t want more out of it (like $12/year versus $120/year).

I’m also concerned about the magazine to digital format. Magazines can take advantage of the Apple News Format to have interactive magazine covers and smooth-flowing articles, but some of the content (especially ads) can be tough to consume on the iPhone. Apple News+ is definitely a better experience on the iPad for now.

And while about 50% of launch magazines are using the special Apple News Format, it’s possible that number will decrease and not increase depending on the return publishers receive for the effort.

Unlike Texture, there’s no presence on Android yet. My guess is that’s because Texture was just the digital magazine service (and who knows how many subscribers it actually had on Android where tablets aren’t prominent) while Apple News+ is included in the Apple News app. The app includes all of the free features of Apple News that we’ve had available for the last few years, and Apple may want to keep that free service as iOS/macOS-only for now.

Compare that to Android where the Beats Music app evolved into Apple Music. You don’t get much from Apple Music on Android for free (except Beats 1 streaming) so Apple isn’t giving away an appeal of the iPhone.

Finally, I’m curious about two things as it relates to magazine issues in Apple News+. Does Apple News+ alert you when new magazines that you read are updated with new issues? And does the back catalog of issues build up each month? The trial period hasn’t quite answered these questions for me yet.

Apple Card

Apple Card, Apple’s new credit card, seemed to garner the most amount of interest for readers during the event. Maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise considering its focus on financial health and a rewards program that doesn’t require a manual to explain.

Apple is using Goldman Sachs as its issuing bank and relying on MasterCard’s payment network, but Apple appears to be in control of much of what Apple Card will be when it launches this summer.

You apply through the Wallet app on the iPhone, an Apple Pay-compatible digital card is issued instantly, and a titanium Apple-designed card is available for transactions that don’t work with Apple Pay.

The rewards program is easy to understand too. 3% cash back on Apple products and services, 2% cash back on Apple Pay transactions, and 1% cash back on physical card transactions. Cash back is calculated daily and made available through the Apple Pay Cash virtual debit card in the Wallet app. You can spend that cash in apps or in stores using Apple Pay, or transfer the balance to your connected bank.

Compare that to other credit cards that have special categories for quarterly rewards that require being manually “activated” and I can see the appeal, although do you homework to know which credit card is best for your needs.

The Apple Card will be good for Goldman Sachs image and it’s in Apple’s interest to help prevent customers from accruing debt that they can’t handle. The digital and physical cards also look really nice.

There are still questions about Apple Card before it launches in the summer though. When will joint accounts be supported? Might we see a balance transfer opportunity for switchers? Is the Apple Rewards card through Barclays going away?

While it was a bit weird to be in a theater surrounded by people clapping for an Apple credit card, I don’t think we’ll hear much more about the Apple Card at events beyond its launch. I do expect the Apple Card to be heavily marketed through Apple’s online and retail stores however.

Apple Arcade

Apple’s upcoming subscription game service has the best name of all the new services introduced. Remember Game Center? Apple Arcade is such a more natural name, and the Tron arcade-style effect for the unveiling was perfect. Luckily Stadia was already taken.

Details are still a bit sparse: launching sometime this fall for a monthly price that hasn’t been announced yet. Whatever the monthly rate, it will include access to 100+ high-quality games across iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, and Mac with no ads and no in-app purchases.

By the way, nice ceramic Apple Watch Edition, Ann Thai! Hopefully ceramic returns with a Series 4-like design in the future.

I’m hardly a gamer these days, but I am a parent of two young kids who already play iPad games today. Apple Arcade will include access for everyone in the family for one monthly fee through Family Sharing. That means my kids can get the real value out of the game service, and I can leisurely poke around it without feeling like I’m wasting money.

iPad gaming today often involves managing in-app purchases and dealing with aggressive banner ads. I don’t mind paying for iOS games or unlocking content with one-time in-app purchases. Family Sharing and Screen Time parental controls give parents a lot of control over how this is managed. Ads in games can be problematic, though, when tapping the wrong link can take you to Safari (and some banner ads have dismiss buttons that are hard for kids to find).

I’ll gladly pay $5-$15/month for a high-quality game service that’s never hijacked with banner ads that lead to sketchy websites through Safari, and there’s nothing more frustrating than downloading a game only to find that every corner of gameplay is hidden behind a separate in-app purchase. (In-app purchases also don’t play nice with Family Sharing, only paid upfront games work well with the current Family Sharing model).

Apple Arcade is designed with Family Sharing in mind, and Apple event highlighted Screen Time parental controls during the keynote.

The list of game makers is also impressive. Disney, Gameloft, SEGA, LEGO, Konami, and Cartoon Network are familiar names as a non-gamer, and real gamers like Federico Viticci are impressed by the names I don’t recognize.

On the developer side, I’m curious about Apple’s role in backing development for these games. I hope we hear more about that aspect, but it’s good to see Apple sharing its resources to put the Arcade service together.

Apple TV+

While services were the theme of the show, Apple’s new streaming video service was the star. But first, a new version of the recently launched TV app.

Apple’s enhanced TV app is as big of an upgrade of the Apple TV as tvOS 11 and tvOS 12 platform updates. The new Apple TV app sports a new design with an updated app icon, a dedicated Kids section for finding family-friendly content based on characters and series, and a new Channels feature.

Channels lets you subscribe to services like HBO and Showtime or CBS All Access and Starz without downloading a separate app from the App Store. Videos play directly in the TV app just like iTunes Movies and TV Shows. (Other content from services like Prime Video with subscriptions sold elsewhere still jump from the TV app to their player apps, but it’s progress!)

Apple TV+, the new streaming video service coming later this fall, consists entirely of original movies and TV shows handpicked and produced for Apple. So far we don’t know that Apple is licensing a back catalog of existing popular movies and TV shows to beef up its streaming video catalog. Instead, Channels is an approach that treats Apple TV+ as additive, not a replacement video service, and the TV app is one home for all video services that want to participate.

Netflix doesn’t see value in playing ball so subscribers can download their app separately, but plenty of other services will work with Channels in the new Apple TV app.

Subscriptions through Channels may not equal savings though. So far the pitch seems to be purely convenience, although it’s possible we’ll see bundles in the future.

Interestingly, Apple is bringing its upgraded TV app to lots of platforms including the usual places like the iPhone, iPad, and Apple TV, and it’s coming to the Mac this fall. But the Apple TV app will also debut on Samsung smart TVs this year followed by LG, Vizio, and Sony smart TVs. Roku and Fire TV streaming sticks and boxes will also pick up the Apple TV app.

As we learned after the event, the new Apple TV app will also come to the third-generation Apple TV (the 1080p box, not the 720p version) which should include Channels and eventually the Apple TV+ subscription video service.

Speaking of Apple TV+, we’ve finally got a name for and sneak peek of Apple’s original video content effort. We first learned of Apple’s effort in June 2017 when Apple announced it hired Jamie Ehrlicht and Zack Van Amburg from Sony Television, tasking the duo with leading video programming in new roles under Eddy Cue.

That announcement was followed by nearly two years of stories from the Hollywood press about new TV show projects being backed by Apple, including a single announcement from Apple about a content deal with Oprah.

Ehrlicht and Van Amburg took the stage to present Apple TV+, marking their first public appearance as Apple employees. Original streaming video content may be new to Apple, but Ehrlicht and Van Amburg owned the presentation without coming off as foreign to Apple.

Then there were the stars. Steven Spielberg, Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Anniston, Steve Carell, Jason Mamoa, Alfre Woodard, Kumail Nanjiani, J.J. Abrams, Sara Bareilles, Big Bird, and a new character named Cody.

As a video streaming service, Apple TV+ looks promising! Apple is fantastic at marketing. Taking the general idea of a video streaming service and spinning it around the concept of great storytelling from trusted story tellers we already love makes the service itself a bit theatric in a good way. Apple didn’t invent the TV show, but the presentation might make you think they just did.

What might be different about Apple TV+ than other services? With Apple Music, the magic at the start was in curation and organizing existing art into playlists. New features like Friends Mix and Favorites Mix take it further, but curation was the initial distinction when first pitched.

With Apple TV+, there’s curation from the taste makers, Jamie and Zach and team, but the content is all new. These shows may have existed elsewhere, but not in this collection. And arguably the upcoming Oprah documentaries teased out may not have.

A lot of early commentary has asked why Apple is bothering with a streaming video service. What difference do they think they can make? As if Apple can only enter a business for moral reasons and not because they see a business opportunity as a company.

But Tim Cook seemed to answer that question in the keynote anyway. Apple loves TV, Cook declared, and they think they can enrich lives through impactful and relatable storytelling that informs and inspires. Lofty goal for a TV service, but the preview wasn’t lackluster.

For example, the Sesame Street Workhouse-created series called Helpsters that was described feels very much in line with Apple’s vision: a female character named Cody who lives in the Sesame Street universe who will teach pre-schoolers about coding. I ate that up as a parent. Apple’s other shows seem to fill the genre spectrum and do look entertaining.

We still don’t know how much the service will cost monthly or exactly how big the catalog will be at launch, but Apple said on stage that new content would be added monthly which is a positive sign that Apple plans to be competitive.

And about the Hollywood stars: I don’t expect we’ll see that repeat again soon. This was a new, one-time unveiling. There may be industry-standard video-only events in the future, we’ll see, but I doubt we’ll see it positioned alongside a new iPhone or iOS features going forward.

As an attendee, there was definitely excitement in the room sitting before the cast that came out on stage. I don’t know how that played out on video, but the event itself felt well paced and highly produced (unless you were awaiting a new Mac announcement).

Generally, though, celebrity endorsements have long been a strategy in marketing (101 classes in college teach this). Beats masters this, and plenty of major companies rely on celebrity endorsements for advertising. The new Apple TV+ service is leaning heavily on it too, but through their involvement in the service’s content. While we’ll likely be introduced to new actors in the future, Apple is addressing being a newcomer to the original content scene by relying on known players in Hollywood.

The single slide with all of the names of talent working with Apple TV+ was like the Hollywood equivalent to a feature slide in a software update at WWDC:

So while Mac Pro fans will likely have to wait a few more months before there’s hardcore hardware news, I viewed Apple’s special services event as generally well-rounded.

Care about any number of specialized topics? Apple News+ may have a magazine or 300 for you. Care about financial health and saving money? There’s Apple Card. Consider yourself a gamer or the parent of one? Apple Arcade. And Apple TV+ has a wide range of talent involved even if you don’t recognize every big name on the giant word cloud.

And while Apple Card is a U.S.-focused service, Apple Arcade and Apple TV+ have large-scale international ambitions. Apple News+ is limited to the U.S. and Canada for now, but Apple promised more countries would come online in the future there as well. All we have to do is wait for summer and fall!

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