Google has launched its latest flagship phones, Pixel 4 and 4XL. Although the new models feature relatively marginal improvements to their predecessors, the launch was staged with much fanfare by Google, as if it represented a major breakthrough for the company and the smartphone market—despite most of the product specs being leaked before the event. The launch was just the latest in a series of product launches by leading digital tech companies that sharply overstated recent innovations.

On September 10, for instance, Apple introduced three new iPhones; revamped Apple Watches; and two new subscriptions services, TV and Apple Arcade. Two weeks later, Amazon presented a long list of new gadgets at its Alexa event. All of these launches have something in common: The “novelties” they introduce are merely iterations of their existing product offering, yet they are presented as revolutionary.

Exaggeration does not come as a surprise in marketing and advertisement. Yet digital corporations pursue a precise strategy with their product launches. The main goal of these events is not so much introducing specific gadgets. It is to position these companies at the centre of the aura that the so-called digital revolution has acquired for billions of users—and customers—around the world.

A long history

Launching new technology devices through public events predates Silicon Valley. Alexander Graham Bell and Guglielmo Marconi, two of the most popular inventors and entrepreneurs in the late 19th and early 20th century, organized events to present the telephone and wireless telegraphy.

Alexander Graham Bell launching the long-distance telephone line from New York to Chicago in 1892. [Photo: United States Library of Congress]

Like today, launches of new products helped shape public opinion and to make a name for companies such as AT&T, Marconi, and Edison. They were even used to fight commercial wars. At the end of the 19th century, Edison launched a campaign of public events to promote his direct current standard against the rival alternating current. The company even electrocuted animals (like the elephant Topsy) in front of journalists to demonstrate that the other standard was dangerous. The audience at these events were mainly scientists or technical experts, but they were also attended by politicians, entrepreneurs, and even kings and queens. The celebrated American inventor Thomas Edison went one step further, presenting his new products in public events such as international exhibitions and tech fairs.

More recently, Steve Jobs followed the footsteps of these inventor-entrepreneurs and codified a “genre”—the so-called keynote. Alone on stage and wearing a roll neck and jeans (an informal “uniform” for geeks), Jobs launched several Apple products in front of audiences of tech enthusiasts. These events helped build the myth of Steve Jobs and Apple.

What product launches are really about

Jobs’s talent was more in the marketing and promoting of new devices than in developing technology. Since the 1980s, Apple’s founder recognized the power of a new vision surrounding digital technologies. This vision saw the personal computer and later the internet as harbingers of a new era.

It was a powerful cultural myth centered around the idea that we are experiencing a digital “revolution,” a concept traditionally associated with political change that now came to describe the impact of new technology. In this context, Jobs carefully staged his launches in order to present Apple as the embodiment of this myth.

Take, for instance, Apple’s famous 2007 iPhone launch. Jobs started his talk arguing that “every once in a while, a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything.” His examples included key moments from Apple’s corporate history: The Macintosh reinvented “the entire computer industry” in 1984, the iPod changed the “entire music industry” in 2001, and the iPhone was about to “reinvent the phone.”

This is a narrow account of technological change, to say the least. Believing that one single device brought about a digital revolution is like seeing a crowd of people in Times Square and assuming they turned up because you broadcast on WhatsApp that everyone should go there. It is, however, a convenient point of view for huge corporations such as Apple or Google. To keep their position in the digital market, these companies not only need to design sophisticated hardware and software, they also need to nurture the myth that we live in a state of incessant revolution of which they are the key engine.

In our research, we call this myth “corporational determinism,” because like other forms of determinism it poses the idea that one single agent is responsible for all changes. The way that digital media companies like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google communicate to the public is largely an attempt to propagandize this myth.

So you should not be worried if Google’s latest launch did not blow you away. The key function of product launches is not actually to launch products. It is for companies to present themselves as the smartest agents in contemporary society, the protagonists of technological change, and, ultimately, the heroes of the digital revolution.

Simone Natale is a senior lecturer in communication and media studies at Loughborough University. Gabriele Balbi is an associate professor in media studies at Università della Svizzera italian. Paolo Bory is a lecturer in media studies at Università della Svizzera italiana. This story originally appeared on The Conversation


When I opened up my phone this week, Snapchat’s new icon nearly hit me in the face. Suddenly, Snapchat’s cute ghost logo was surrounded by a decisively bold line that feels too thick for comfort, at least at first glance.

[Images: Snap Inc]

I wasn’t alone. Many users aren’t happy about the change, which rolled out earlier this week, and took to Twitter to express their feelings—as is typical when corporations make changes to their logos:

Does anyone else feel like the updated Snapchat icon is a little too aggressive? The bolded outline of the ghost is making me uncomfortable.

— Tara Grace (@_tarathomas_) August 12, 2019

Snapchat’s new logo looks like accidentally adding a stroke on illustrator

— con (@prosandcons___) August 9, 2019

The snap chat logo changed and I’m freaked out

Mom come pick me up I’m scared

— Majestic Evee (@kaylawells17) August 13, 2019

There is a practical reason for the change. Snap says the bold line makes the app’s logo more visible and eye-catching. And it certainly worked on me: Now, any time I open up my phone, my eyes are drawn to that thick bold outline like flies to light, in part because it’s so different from the thin lines we’re accustomed to in modern-day branding.

Still, some users are threatening to delete the app over it, or at least hide it away in a folder so they don’t have to look at it. Tellingly, one user described how it didn’t “match” the other apps on their phone. Indeed, thinness has become a design standard—largely thanks to Apple and its obsession with clean, thin minimalism. Across the internet, lighter line weights have become associated with the tech companies, as well as clean, clear, user-centered design—chunky lines look like Comic Sans compared to this sleek aesthetic. If you scroll through your phone and look at app icons, you’d be hard-pressed to find many apps that embrace the kind of thick line that Snap has with its new logo.

But that’s also exactly what helps Snap—and the few other companies daring to move beyond the minimalist logo paradigm—stand out. The subtle shift makes sense within the context of the company’s latest release, Spectacles 3, which isn’t about pleasing the masses but is marketed instead to the creative, fashion-forward, early adopters of the world. Amid the clean lines and minimalism, Snap is bold and not afraid to show it.