Phones

iPhone X launch mania: How I survived my first Apple event

From immaculate bathrooms to an army of super cheery employee greeters, here's what it's like to attend the tech world's most anticipated unveiling.

James Martin/CNET

Talk about making a strong first impression.

I'm walking uphill along a curvy concrete path to get to the Steve Jobs Theater at the still-unopened Apple Park campus when a smiling employee, wearing a T-shirt with a fluorescent green version of the company's iconic logo, asks me, "How are you doing today?"

He wouldn't be the last.

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The entrance to the Steve Jobs Theater is a circular glass structure that mysteriously props up its ceiling with seemingly no support. 

James Martin/CNET

Every few seconds, another employee asks me the same question or smiles at me. They're spaced evenly every 10 feet or so along both sides of the walkway, perpetually cheery and ready to offer a friendly greeting.

At the top of the hill is the circular glass structure that houses the entrance to the theater. I walk around and see a table offering fresh-pressed concoctions like "Watermelon breeze," a mix of watermelon, cucumber, pineapple, jicama, beets, lime juice and peppermint (there's too much beet).

Virtually every little detail has been attended to. The visitor center -- essentially an Apple Store on steroids -- looks so much like the architectural renderings it's scary. The restroom underneath is the most immaculate one I've ever seen.

Which is ironic since the whole place smelled of manure.

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As breathtaking as Cupertino, California-based Apple Park is -- and it really is, with the main ring-like "Spaceship" headquarters north of us serving as the backdrop to our walk uphill -- the campus clearly isn't finished yet. Employees move in later this year, and I'm among the first outsiders to step foot on the grounds after the normally secretive company rolled out the red carpet for industry bigwigs, celebrities and the media. It's an extra special occasion for me, since this is my first time covering an Apple event in person despite writing about tech for more than a decade.

Apple wanted to do something special for its newest iPhone, with the franchise celebrating a decade of dominance. Anticipation for the new iPhones is at a fevered pitch, thanks in part to the rumors of the first major redesign in three years. So in addition to using this venue, it paid tribute to late co-founder Steve Jobs once again by holding the launch at the theater named in his honor. 

"Steve's vision and passion live on here at Apple Park and everywhere at Apple," CEO Tim Cook says in an unusually solemn start to the event. "It's only fitting that Steve should open this theater."

The product launch event is a critical ingredient in kick-starting consumer excitement, and Tuesday's festivities show that no company -- not even tech behemoth Apple -- can ignore the need for a little showmanship. And while rival Samsung has improved its stagecraft with features like a jaw-dropping stage floor made of LED screen tiles, Apple wins out on setting.

"The Samsung Note 8 launch was excellent in terms of presentation," says Avi Greengart, an analyst at Global Data. "But it's one thing to rent a venue, and another to build one."

And oh, did Apple build one.

An early arrival

The event doesn't kick off until 10 a.m. PT, but I'm there with CNET editors Scott Stein and David Katzmaier at 7:30 a.m. PT, our car plunging into an empty grey parking lot where more Apple employees direct us. We go down three levels before finding a spot, and it's shortly after that I make my way to the bathroom.

"Some industrial designer spent more time on that bathroom than on most office buildings," Greengart later quips.

After passing through the registration area, where I flash the QR code on my Apple Event invitation (stored in my iPhone's Wallet), I make my way up the hill and past more Apple employees.

Near the top, I see Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak holding court in front of a half dozen admirers, some asking for a selfie. He says he's just as excited as anyone but admits he's been using more Android phones lately because of the newer technologies that are built in.

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Yes, CNET Editor-in-Chief Connie Guglielmo and I took a selfie with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. But it's the Woz!

James Martin/CNET

I walk into the entrance hall of the Steve Jobs Theater and look around the glass circular structure, with a white spaceship-like ceiling suspended above us. There's time to schmooze with analysts like Greengart and IHS Markit's Wayne Lam and journalists like Axios' Ina Fried.

I ask one of the T-shirted Apple employees what he does. His response: "The attention is best focused on this wonderful venue."

Other Apple employees form a human barricade in front of the two curved staircases that go down to the actual theater. They may be friendly, but they're not letting us go anywhere until the time is right.

The main event

As the employees walk down the stairs, the crowd behind them begin marching down. Seeing the motion, I attempt to bolt toward the stairs. But I hit a wall of bodies and notice everyone is moving at an extra slow pace. The reason: Those employees are slowly walking down the steps and controlling the pace in an effort to avoid a stampede.

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Apple's Steve Jobs Theater features some boxy leather seats. 

David Katzmaier/CNET

Once at the base of the lower level, CNET Editor-in-Chief Connie Guglielmo tells me to go and run through a set of doors and head deeper into the bowels of the theater, which reportedly house seats that cost $14,000 a piece.

Apple executives tout the venue as the most advanced theater -- able to project 4K video off the company's new Apple TV 4K box, for instance -- but all I care about are the outlets near the bottom of each seat.

For a tech journalist live-blogging an event, power is everything.

Most tech presentations are formulaic, but Apple shakes things up at the beginning with an audio clip of Jobs and a moment of silence before Cook walks out and pays tribute to his predecessor. 

"We dedicated this theater to Steve because we love him and because he loved days like this," Cook says.

Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi saw a lot of significance those few words: "It felt as if Tim Cook was turning a page into a new chapter. Acknowledging that today's and, more importantly, tomorrow's Apple remains true to what Jobs believed Apple should be, but it is now a company standing on its own feet."

Cook welcomes us and offers and introductory remarks, and his various lieutenants get into the nitty-gritty. There's an update on the stores, then Apple Watch Series 3 and Apple TV 4K.

It's up to Philip Schiller, head of marketing for Apple, to officially unveil the iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X (pronounced "ten," and not "ex"). He speaks in a low, hushed tone, as if describing something sacred, and geeks out over an overwhelming amount of technical specifications and details.

His message, however, is the same as it has been every year: This is the best iPhone ever.

Jumping into the fray

The highly choreographed and controlled presentation stands in contrasts to what happens once Cook wraps things up and walks off the stage. The wall behind the seat recedes into the ceiling and eager journalists and bloggers rush up to the area outside, which has been converted into a demo area.

This is when the real battle starts.

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Apple CEO Tim Cook chats with attendees of the iPhone X event. Not seen: Me fighting for time with one of the phones. 

James Martin/CNET

The tables offer the first opportunity for the public to get their hands on the new Apple products, and there's plenty of jostling and elbowing to be first. During a demonstration of the iPhone X's Face ID setup, a reporter from a foreign newspaper begs me to get his hands on the phone so he can meet his deadline, his eager cameraman next to him already pointing his camera in my face.

I politely decline, and he runs off to find another demo unit.

There are cameramen and producers, their camera gear and tripods swinging freely, asking other journalists and bloggers for sound bites.

I see Stein and Katzmaier shooting video after video.

It's obvious why everyone is in a rush. The consumer tech world is obsessed with Apple's latest announcement, so there's an extra level of urgency and panic when it comes to videos, hands-on impressions and stories up as quickly as possible. When the time in the demo room is limited, every second counts. 

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Mission accomplished! 

CNET

And then, all of a sudden, it all ends. At some point, everyone's done shooting and writing, and people begin to filter out.

Those same employees greet you on the way out, asking, "Did you have a great time?"

After Katzmaier, Stein and I get our bearings and meet up again, we head to Palo Alto and grab dinner at Kanpai, Jobs' favorite sushi restaurant.

After attending an event in which Jobs was ever-present, there was no better way to cap off such a crazy day. 

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