The post-Steve Jobs era of Apple will officially begin on Tuesday. Here’s why

Despite the hype that always accompanies the staging of an Apple event, only a handful of them over the past decade have truly mattered. It seems pretty clear that next Tuesday’s event is going to fall into that category, based on the way Apple has handled the run-up to it and the fact that we’re about to enter a new era for the storied company.

You can count those ground-breaking events from the last ten years on one hand: the 2005 iPod nano event, the 2007 Macworld that introduced the iPhone, the 2008 event that revealed how the App Store would work, and the 2010 iPad event. Sure, there were other notable moments during that period (and plenty before then) but those were the events that truly made people realize how Apple was defining the current generation of personal computing.

Tuesday’s event will be one of those crossroads events: one that we’ll remember either as a day [company]Apple[/company] articulated a new vision for computing that we’ve been waiting for someone to advance — or as a sign it has overreached.

Something to talk about

It looks as if the new product category that Apple watchers have been clamoring for since Tim Cook became CEO in 2011 is here, in the form of what we’ll call the iWatch. We don’t know what it looks like or exactly how it will work, but we know that it will pair with the iPhone and we know that it will serve as a landmark product for those who have wondered if Apple could sustain its amazing run of innovation as we approach the third anniversary of Jobs’ death.

Apple CEO Tim Cook looks on, wearing a Nike Fuelband, before the Apple Store opens to sell the new iPhone on September 20, 2013 in Palo Alto, California. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Apple CEO Tim Cook looks on, wearing a Nike Fuelband, before the Apple Store opens to sell the new iPhone on September 20, 2013 in Palo Alto, California. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

How can I be so sure? One of the many interesting tidbits from 9to5Mac’s recent report on Apple’s PR strategy was how the company sought to manage expectations in the weeks leading up to previous events, usually attempting to downplay the often silly anticipation that Apple was about to blow everybody’s minds the same way it did in January 2007. Over the past few weeks, Apple has done almost the opposite with this event:

  • It sent out invitations to the media and other guests a week earlier than usual, and it even invited long-banned iPhone 4 wranglers Gizmodo.
  • It will hold the event at the Flint Center for the Performing Arts on the campus of DeAnza College in Cupertino, the site of two landmark events in computing history: the unveiling of the original Macintosh in 1984 and the public return of Jobs with the iMac in 1998.
  • It is constructing a huge building on the campus of this facility to house, well, something.
  • It announced that it would be live streaming the event much earlier than usual, and has placed a countdown clock on its home page.
  • The famous “sources familiar with the plans” became very chatty this week, revealing details about the iWatch, the new iPhone, an NFC-based mobile payments system, and the notion that Apple designer Jony Ive thinks Swiss watch makers are “in trouble.” (Per the New York Times, Ive actually used a word that suggested a stronger outcome, a word that I’d wager begins with “f” and ends with “d.”)

“This event is uncharted territory,” said no less an Apple authority than Daring Fireball’s John Gruber this week. And it’s not just the above series of observations that leads to that conclusion.

Fashion cents

This event feels like the first event that is truly free of Jobs’ shadow, and that is a very healthy thing for Apple. Obviously, going back to the Flint Center can’t help but evoke the memory of Apple’s mercurial co-founder, but the products that will be unveiled on Tuesday were likely only glimmers in Jobs’ eye when he left us in 2011. The crucial decisions about components, features, pricing, and the like were entirely the product of a new management team assembled by CEO Tim Cook.

It’s likely the first event of a new era in Apple’s history in which the company is no longer worried about beating the giants of the computing and consumer electronics worlds. If wearable computing is truly going to become the next big thing, Apple is setting its sights on competing with the fashion designers of the world, rather than the tech industry.

Let’s face it: for all the recent emphasis on design among tech companies, they rarely produce truly fashionable items the way Louis Vuitton cranks out handbags or Italian shoemakers collect money from Om Malik. Just look at all the Android Wear smartwatches that have been produced to date: does anybody who cares about his or her appearance truly want to wear such a device?

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Apple edged in that direction with the original iPhone, but the design breakthrough then was really more about user experience than it was true fashion. The iWatch promises to be different — although no less focused on user experience — because the items you wear on your body are much more an expression of yourself than the items you carry in your pocket or purse.

From Osbourne to Gucci

We at Gigaom have been preached the gospel of connectivity for years: that one day, everything will be connected to the internet, and that connection will create all kinds of magical and terrible things we can’t even envision yet. If we are really ready to embrace fashion accessories as mini computers, who would you bet on: one of the most iconic computer companies of all time, or a proud fashion designer who has never sourced a microcontroller? Just look at what Marc Newson decided to do on Friday: I’ll bet you an iWatch he’s seen the iWatch.

[pullquote person=”” attribution=””]If we are really ready to embrace fashion accessories as mini computers, who would you bet on: one of the most iconic computer companies of all time, or a proud fashion designer who has never sourced a microcontroller?[/pullquote]

Personally, I’m not convinced the world is ready for the iWatch the way the world was ready for the iPhone. Smartphones were common among the tech set before January 2007, but they become instantly clunky, slow, and one-dimensional in the wake of the iPhone. There has not been a comparable embrace of smartwatches that we know lack a certain je ne sais quoi at the same time we know they’ll one day be huge, although you could argue that the interest in fitness tracking devices like the Jawbone and the Fitbit (see disclosure) is the first wave of that movement.

But the essential truth of the iPhone was that it awoke the everyday consumer to the possibilities afforded by the internet in their pockets. If the iWatch — or whatever it is called — can reveal the possibilities afforded by health-monitoring sensors, helpful notifications and perhaps something we haven’t yet realized we want, Apple will have made yet another breakthrough.

And this time, you won’t be able to pin all the credit or blame on Steve Jobs. I’d bet that’s exactly how he would have wanted it.

Tim Cook photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

Disclosure: Fitbit is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of Gigaom.