Apple, Microsoft and Sony are showing big tech how to hold conferences in a COVID-19 world

Apple's WWDC 2017 conference in San Jose, California

Apple CEO Tim Cook keynoting WWDC 2017 in San Jose, California


James Martin/CNET

On June 22, Apple will kick off one of its most important events of the year, the Worldwide Developers Conference, or WWDC for short. The event will have all the pageantry we’ve come to expect from the iPhone and Mac maker: CEO Tim Cook, highly polished presentations, and one or two “ooh” and “ahh” worthy reveals. But barely anyone will be in the room when it happens.

Apple will hold its event entirely over the internet, after the coronavirus pandemic forced the massive tech to cancel plans to gather press and thousands of developers in a San Jose, California, conference center.

By adjusting its event to be online only, Apple may pave the way for a new approach to holding large events online, offering a model for others to follow as we prepare for the coronavirus to continue upending daily life for another year or more.

“We’re witnessing a change that’s going to last for a couple years at least,” said Technalysis Research analyst Bob O’Donnell, who’s been attending tech industry events for the past two decades.

Social distancing guidelines mean that packing people into large theaters just won’t be practical, and travel likely won’t pick up until people feel safe while confined in an airplane and breathing the same air with 100 other people. “Everything is being questioned at this point,” O’Donnell said.

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Apple’s effort to hold its conference is another sign of tech companies adjusting to life amid a pandemic that’s threatened billions of people around the globe since the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was detected in December. But Apple will face challenges, analysts and seasoned event attendees say. Among them, Apple will need to hold our attention without the energy and excitement of a crowd.

Other tech companies have decided to wait out the crisis. Facebook and Google canceled their annual developer events slated for the spring. This  summer’s Electronic Entertainment Expo, known as the E3 video game conference, was also canceled. These love fests for fans, partners and programmers have become an annual tradition, filled with thousands of attendees cheering new product announcements and keynote speeches from CEOs.

But that’s not possible with the threat of the coronavirus. Governments have ordered millions of their citizens to stay at home, wear masks when they venture out and keep at least six feet apart from one another. Testing sites, filled with doctors and nurses wearing multiple layers of personal protective equipment including masks, face shields and paper gowns, look like they came out of a dystopian science fiction movie.

Despite those precautions, around the world more than 8 million people have been infected by the virus, and more 438,000 have died.

While many big tech conferences have been canceled, Apple, Microsoft and Sony are taking a different tack. Each company has chosen to hold its typically in-person event entirely online, giving live access to many more people than they could fit in convention centers as they stream their announcements on the internet.

“Running a virtual event well requires stitching together several different technologies. It’s not just a webcast or several webcasts,” said Adam Preset, a senior research director at Gartner, whose clients are increasingly asking for help putting these types of events together.

The challenge companies will face, in addition to technical glitches or family members suddenly interrupting at home, is keeping the audience engaged, he said.

“Are there lots of organizations that have been able to get viewers to attend webcasts? Yes,” he said. “Do they feel like they get the same attention and engagement that they would in person? It’s mixed.”

CNET’s global team will cover Apple’s event, as well as other conferences that have shifted online. And our coverage will include the real-time updates, commentary and analysis you can only get here.

Apple's WWDC 2019 conference in San Jose, California

Apple’s WWDC 2019 conference in San Jose, California


Stephen Shankland/CNET

Meeting expectations

When Apple, Microsoft or any large company speaks, people take notice. But there are ways these companies are used to holding events that may not work for this new age.

For example, Microsoft’s Xbox team held a virtual event on May 7, announcing new games for its upcoming Xbox Series X console launching in the fall. The presentation, billed as a reveal of new games and what it’ll look like playing them, was panned by fans who felt Microsoft’s presentation didn’t give them what they wanted.

“Clearly we set some wrong expectations & that’s on us,” tweeted Aaron Greenberg, a general manager of Xbox games marketing, shortly after the event.

Patrick Moorhead, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, said part of what successful presenters have learned is how to keep people’s attention throughout an event. When you’re in a presentation hall, you’re a captive audience member, but in your own home all you have to do is switch browser tabs to get away.

“Every 15 minutes, they need to reassess if they’re entertaining and educating the audience,” he said, likening it to producing reality TV shows with drama and intrigue even when the actual footage isn’t always arresting.

Microsoft tried something different with its Build developer conference later that month. The event was designed more like a television show, with shorter speeches, presentations and demos than in years past. The company even set up sports commentator-inspired news desks, staffed by people from Microsoft’s developer program staff, to discuss announcements and highlight comments and tweets from people watching live.

“This is interactive television,” said Bob Bejan, the corporate vice president who heads Microsoft’s events who’s worked on interactive entertainment efforts at Microsoft, Warner Bros. and other companies over the span of three decades. 

Online events, he said, need to think in television terms, including keeping presentations at 22 minutes or 44 minutes like a regular episode, and keeping demos much shorter. It has to look different too, with more interaction between the presenter and the camera, instead of trying to do a stage presentation meant for thousands on a livestream instead. “It’s in the human connection,” he said.

Sony appeared to have learned some of those lessons for its PlayStation event on June 11, showing off new games as well as a surprise reveal of the design for its coming PlayStation 5, also coming this fall. PlayStation CEO Jim Ryan kicked off the 74-minute-long presentation with a 58-second speech, which he finished by saying, “Enough from me. We’re going to have the games do our talking.” 

By the end, Sony’s event had been a steady stream of trailers for more than two dozen games, separated by short intermissions with artistic animations and dramatic music. The event lit up social media as fans ate up the news.

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The Apple way

Apple helped perfect the art of the modern product announcement to begin with. Its sleek black background slideshows with minimal information on the screen, seriousness mixed with brevity and product introduction videos made to look like high-end advertisements of their own are now commonplace thanks to the company’s popularity.

Co-founder Steve Jobs was so good at it that industry watchers said his presentations had a “reality distortion field,” causing people to change the way they think because of what they heard and saw.

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Apple co-founder Steve Jobs helped perfect the company’s presentation style.


James Martin/CNET

Analysts say Apple’s brand appeal and its success at beaming presentations to thousands of people, both in an auditorium and over the internet, mean it’ll likely fare better than other companies just learning the ropes.

A key issue Apple will face, though, is the energy that comes from an audience. Even in small presentations held at Apple’s Cupertino, California, headquarters, attendees clap, cheer and hang on every word from executives. Analysts said even if Apple brings some attendees into a room to reproduce the effect, it won’t be the same.

“Apple’s going to have to get by without their laugh track,” said Forrester analyst Nick Barber. “I think Apple can produce a broadcast that’s engaging and interesting. It’s just that they won’t get feedback in real time.”

The good news for Apple is that while its WWDC keynote is an important event among the most hardcore fans, it’s not when the company announces the newest iteration of its biggest product, the iPhone. That will come in the fall, with rumors pointing to new 5G wireless technology as a key selling point.

“Apple is certainly a unique brand in terms of its evangelists,” Barber said. “There’s basically no other product in the world where people will gleefully hand over $1,000 for a phone.”

Now we’ll find out if it can draw that attention with a new spin on its product announcements.

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