The iPhone 7 was billed as a massive letdown long before Apple officially unveiled it on September 7.
But, a curious thing happened when the new smartphone was actually released. It turned into a surprise hit--with generally strong reviews and brisk sales.
SEE: 8 reasons why professionals should get the iPhone 7 (TechRepublic)
Some of this was due to Apple's solid execution on the right things: improved camera features, longer battery life, and twice as much storage.
Yet, much of it was also due to a master stroke in the expectations game.
Throughout 2016, Apple did little to counter the negative press and speculation leading up to the iPhone 7 announcement. In fact, it wouldn't have been unlike Apple to have leaked the information earlier in the year that the iPhone 7 wasn't going to get a major redesign the way most new iPhones do every other year.
All of the rumors, reports, and leaked images from Apple partners pointed to the iPhone 7 being more of an incremental update like the "S" models that Apple releases every two years, followed by a tent pole redesign in 2017 on the 10-year anniversary of the iPhone.
When you add that to the fixation around Apple getting rid of the 3.5mm headphone jack--which, of course, it did--the expectations for the iPhone 7 were at historic lows heading into September.
That made it easy for Apple to soar over the low bar that had been set. A camera upgrade, a stair-step improvement in battery life, and a storage kick-up that was long overdue wouldn't have normally gotten people very excited.
But, all three were bigger improvements than expected. And while the iPhone 7 didn't get a full-on redesign, the new Jet Black and Matte Black models looked different enough--and slick enough--to be new and shiny. They were also better than what the tech press and Apple customers had been anticipating.
So again, the expectations game played a big part of what's shaping the iPhone 7 into an Apple win.
As much as Apple is (rightfully) accused of sometimes overstating the value and originality of its products at launch events, the company also has a long history of skillfully managing the expectations game. The company is especially known for this in its Wall Street forecasts. It habitually under-forecasts its financial future and is very conservative in talking about growth. It almost always under-promises and over-delivers.
Let's contrast that to how Google typically announces products. The search giant has a long history of being overly optimistic in its launches. And while it's hard not to love the company's enthusiasm for how tech can change the future, the result is that we're regularly disappointed by the results. There are countless examples, but let's zoom in on two: Google Wave and Google Glass.
Announced at Google I/O 2009, Google Wave was hailed as "the e-mail of the future" that would blend formal written emails, instant messaging, photo sharing, and corporate collaboration. Instead, it turned out to be a confusing, overly chatty IM client and Google axed it the next summer. (Incidentally, yours truly named it one of the five worst tech products of 2009.)
Teased out in the spring of 2012, Google Glass got its big splash at Google I/O that year when Sergey Brin jumped on stage and invited the audience to watch a team of skydivers leap from a plane above the Moscone Center and livestream their dive all the way down. The demo itself was a hit, but the product turned out to be slow, clunky, and disappointing. Two and a half years later, after failing to get a full-scale consumer launch off the ground, Google shuttered Glass in January 2015 and announced that it would be turned into an enterprise product. Google has said little to nothing about Glass since then.
In both cases, Google had a product ahead of its time--Wave was a precursor to Slack and Glass had a jump on the onslaught of virtual reality and augmented reality headsets--but both products were doomed by the weight of their own expectations.
Let's see if Google has learned any lessons from these missteps. The company is amping up to launch its first Google-branded smartphone on October 4. It's used Twitter, YouTube, and the new madeby.google.com site to help generate interest. The company has also kicked up the heat with a series of high profile billboards in New York City. And on Monday, Google is launching an interactive 4K promo on New York's largest electronic billboard in Times Square.
Of course, all this buzz means that the new Google Pixel phone better be good.
Google hasn't yet shown that it's as skillful at managing the expectations game as Apple. It's a fine line to walk, where you generate interest and excitement for a new product and tell stories that create value around its strengths, while being careful not to overpromise its capabilities to the point that it can't live up to those expectations and creates disappointment.
There's an important lesson there that we can all apply to business and life--whether it's communicating market share growth or taking your kids to see the latest Star Wars movie; opening a new international market or giving marriage advice to a newlywed friend.
Mastering the expectations game is one of the secrets to business success, and general happiness.
ZDNet Monday Morning Opener
The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8:00am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6:00pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US.
Previously on Monday Morning Opener:
- Why a bit of fast talking could save the PC from disaster
- Dell Technologies vs. HPE: A tale of two business model strategies
- Why identity protection is the next phase in security
- 3 things you can learn from the NFL about digital transformation
- Census 2016: A case study in the confluence of failure
- The dirtiest little secret about big data: Jobs
- Windows 10, Android, iOS, and the billion user question
- Why Trump and Brexit are an indictment of the tech industry and its worldview
- The internet as battleground: Where do we go from here?