Apple CEO Tim Cook and several other top executives today pulled the wraps off the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, and showed the company's long-awaited wearable, dubbed the Apple Watch, to a large audience in Cupertino, Calif.
At the same venue where 30 years ago co-founder Steve Jobs famously pulled the original 1984 Macintosh personal computer from a tote bag and then later let it speak in a robotic voice, Apple held its largest product roll-out since the original iPhone in 2007.
"I've been watching Apple keynotes for a long time. I'm not sure I remember anything quite like this," said Ben Thompson, an independent analyst, in a tweet before the 10 a.m. PT presentation kicked off. "Hype, audience, was always a big deal among techies, but this is a whole 'nother level."
"Talk about a comprehensive announcement," said Van Baker, an analyst with Gartner, in an interview after the Apple event.
"It's great to be back in the Flint Center," Cook said after he'd stepped on stage.
But for the millions who were watching the event via Apple's webcast -- the company had pulled out the stops and starting yesterday, redirected all visitors to the page that played the broadcast -- the presentation was a mess, with constant interruptions, black screens, failed audio, color bars, repeats of parts already seen, several "Access Denied" error messages, and what sounded like a Chinese translator talking in the background for much almost a fourth of the webcast.
"So, about Apple and the cloud..." tweeted Thompson, who was watching the webcast from his home in Taiwan.
"Surely it's an embarrassment of epic proportions that the world's mightiest tech company cannot even stream a live event," added Paul Thurrott, a noted blogger who primarily covers Microsoft and Windows, also on Twitter.
For his fourth iPhone introduction since taking the reins from Jobs in 2011, Cook kept to tradition by kicking off the event, then introducing other Apple executives, including head marketer Philip Schiller and Eddy Cue, who leads the Internet software and services group, to do some of the heavy lifting.
"[This is] the biggest advancement in the history of iPhone," Cook crowed, then showed off the two new iPhones before ceding the stage to Schiller.
The iPhone 6 sports a 4.7-in. display with an 1334-x-750-pixel resolution, while the iPhone 6 Plus boasts the long-rumored 5.5-in. screen with an 1920-x-1080-pixel resolution. Apple dubbed the new displays "Retina Display HD."
Both smartphones are powered by the next-generation A8 SoC (system on a chip) that Schiller bragged is 50% more energy efficient than last year's A7, with a 25% faster CPU and 84-times increase in GPU performance.
Apple has added support for VoLTE, or voice-over-LTE, which Schiller said would make calls clearer, and Wi-Fi calling, so that calls begun within range of a Wi-Fi network will seamlessly hand off to a cellular network -- or vice versa -- as an owner moves.
"This was a bunch of expected, expectable refinements," said Ezra Gottheil of Technology Business Research. "It was pretty much what you can expect from most any smartphone introduction.... This is a mature technology now. But it was enough to make them attractive and make some noise."
Gottheil said he was looking forward to trying the Wi-Fi calling -- he called it "important to me" -- because cellular signals are weak where he works.
Prices for the iPhone 6 will be the same as last year's iPhone 5S -- $199, $299 and $399 with a two-year contact -- although Apple has doubled the mid- and top-end models to 64GB and 128GB of storage.
The larger iPhone 6 Plus will, as analysts bet yesterday, be priced $100 higher, or $299, $399 and $499 with a carrier commitment.
Off-contract prices for the iPhone 6 will start at $649; the iPhone 6 Plus begins at $759.
Because of the introduction of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, Apple will again modify its long-standing practice of retaining previous-generation models, which it has sold at $99 with a contract for the past year's phone (n-1), or for $549 sans commitment. In the case of the two-year-old model (n-2), Apple has asked for zero down when customers sign a two-year contract, or $449 for an unlocked phone.
The iPhone 5S will take the "n-1" spot, while the iPhone 5C will hold down the "n-2" place. Apple has dropped 2011's iPhone 4S from the line-up, contrary to some experts' predictions.
The new iPhones will go on sale Sept. 19, and Apple will start taking orders Friday, Sept. 12. iOS 8, as anticipated, will be available for download to existing iOS devices on Sept. 17.
Money, money, money
Cook also outlined his company's first NFC-based digital payment service.
"This is exactly what Apple does best. And so we've created an entirely new payment process, and we called it Apple Pay," said Cook, who touted the service as faster, more secure and more convenient.
Cue, who took over presentation duties, said the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus would both support Apple Pay, meaning older models will not be able to pay by touching the smartphone to a specialized terminal at retail.
Apple will first roll out Apple Pay in the U.S., and has struck deals with the three largest American credit card companies -- American Express, MasterCard and Visa -- and has also notched agreements with retailers like Macy's, McDonalds, Walgreens and Whole Foods, all of which are in the process of installing terminals.
Some major websites, including Apple's own online store, Groupon, Target and Uber will integrate Apple Pay with their iOS apps.
"This is the first payment system that I think has a chance of success," said Van Baker of Gartner. "They have the banks, they have the retailers, they have the credit card companies. This will be huge."
Apple Pay will launch next month, and the software support will be provided as an over-the-air update to iOS 8 then.
Just Watch me
But the star of the show wasn't an iPhone, even the large-screen iPhone Plus, or Apple Pay.
"We have one more thing..." said Cook, a line made famous by Jobs, and five words that got some of the biggest applause of the morning. "We love to make great products that enrich people's lives. We've been working incredibly hard for a long time on an entirely new product. It is the next chapter in Apple's story. Apple Watch is the most personal device we've ever created."
The wearable is a combination of timepiece; link to the iPhone for tasks such as notifications, email and calls; and a health and fitness device.
"Wow," said Baker. "We didn't see an announcement for a watch, we saw a collection of watches, with a slew of apps. It's so much more than a watch."
Rather than rely on gestures -- something that wouldn't work on such a small display -- the Apple Watch uses the "digital crown," the rotating wheel atop the stem on a traditional watch -- for navigation and operation. The device is also touch-enabled, and uses a chip to provide tactile feedback.
Apple called it the "Taptic Engine," a play on the word "haptics," the term for tactile feedback technology that mimics touch, usually with small motors.
"I'm very impressed," said Gottheil, who admitted he had been a skeptic going into the Apple event. "It looks like Apple's [Watch] solved a number of the design problems in all current smartwatches, including navigation, tactile feedback and an understanding that it has to be as fashionable as you can make a device like this."
Carolina Milanesi, chief of research and head of U.S. business for Kantar WorldPanel Comtech, also praised the Apple Watch, or more accurately, how it meshed with what Apple introduced earlier in the one hour, 45-min. unveiling. "It really made sense to have all this together, the iPhones and the Apple Watch," said Milanesi. "They are complementary. This was about the bigger Apple, the bigger ecosystem."
The device's crystal is made of sapphire -- this is the device that will use the ultra-hard material that Apple has spent millions on -- and the Watch can be fixed to six different bands, including a sports band, leather, and steel links, some of them available in several colors. Apple Watch will come in two physical sizes, essentially one for women, another for men, but the combination of watch materials and bands let Apple create three different collections, including one in gold.
"Apple recognized that you need two sizes, but this is still 'geekware,' it's still descended from a calculator," said Gottheil. "But the design and the [multiple] bands really move it into true 'watch' territory."
In a demonstration, Kevin Lynch, who was Adobe's chief technology officer before being hired by Apple last year, showed off the Apple Watch's functions and features, ranging from incoming notifications -- with the most-likely replies displayed after an analysis of the incoming message -- and an integrated Siri digital assistant to receiving calls and viewing photos taken earlier by an iPhone or iPad, or with a camera whose contents have been uploaded to a Mac or simply placed in the Photo Stream.
The Apple Watch also acts as a miniature GPS device, complete with walking or driving directions, with haptics feedback to indicate turns and their direction. Reaching out to contacts can be done with phone calls, texts and with a new mode, called "Digital Touch," that lets users draw on the small screen.
Developers will be able to build and customize their apps using "WatchKit," said Lynch, who showed bits and pieces of apps from the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, American Airlines, Major League Baseball and Nike.
Apple Watch also works as a health and fitness device, courtesy of the new Fitness and Workout apps. Sensors within the device measure the wearer's heartbeat, track body movement, and monitor sitting time. Data can be shared with the iOS 8 Health app on an iPhone.
Apple Pay will also work with the new wearable.
The new device requires an iPhone, and will work with the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, as well as the 5, 5C and 5S. It will start at $349, and will be available early next year, as recent rumors claimed. "And it will be worth the wait," Cook said.
Baker, Gottheil and Milanesi were each taken with the Apple Watch, and believe it has the potential to become a major revenue stream for the Cupertino, Calif. company -- if not on the level of the iPhone, then certainly with an opportunity to become as important to the bottom line as the iPad or Mac.
"Apple today said, 'See, we can do it,'" said Gottheil when asked if there was a problem with the several-month lag between introduction and on-sale for the Apple Watch. "I think they were eager to do that, to answer the criticism, to put an end to the discussion 'Can Apple innovate?'"
Milanesi, who like Baker was at the event -- Gottheil watched the webcast -- was most impressed with a seemingly minor detail which actually preceded the event. "Half the people in the audience were Apple employees, all sitting in the front. Reporters and analysts were towards the back," said Milanesi. "That was a nice touch. This was all about the new Apple, the company, not a single person, not one product, but all the products together."
Read our Apple Watch review