A grand day out

by Giles Turnbull

Recent important Apple events in the USA have been transmitted via live satellite to the UK, where British and European journalists can sit and watch and pretend they're in the same room as Steve Jobs.

I thought perhaps you might like to know what happens at one of these events.

Yesterday, for the Intel Macs announcement, the UK venue was the BBC TV Centre in West London. This was also the venue back in October last year, when the video iPod was announced. Some people thought, before that event, that the BBC's involvement suggested they had some input with video content.

Actually, the BBC hosts things like this because it has the large spaces needed, and the technical expertise to handle incoming satellite feeds and show them to hundreds of people; few other places in London have that kind of facility.

On arrival at Television Centre, there was a brief registration process where everyone was handed a color-coded badge.

Then we had to find our way to the right room.

If you've never visited the BBC's headquarters, let me try to describe the environment: it's huge, and it's a maze. Thanks to unique architecture and decades of expansion to house ever-larger technical facilities, Television Centre is a confusing warren of corridors, open spaces and meeting rooms. The broadcast studios are in the middle of the campus, so the first challenge is to find your way to the right place.

A string of BBC staff stood at every junction or corner, pointing the way. There must have been 30 of them, at least, managing this crocodile of bemused journalists and guests.

We were guided into a large studio. The lighting was low, but colorful - lots of pink and purple splashes on to white walls. It was hot and very crowded with people, and to the frustration of many people there were no seats at all. Tired journalists plopped their laptop bags on the floor, threw their coats on top (it's cold in London at this time of year), and looked for the bar.

Killing time
Texting to kill time

It wasn't hard to find. In the centre of the room was a circular bar, with more colorful highlighting, bedecked with glassware. The drink flowed like bytes over a broadband connection; waitresses in black hovered at every elbow, proffering more drink (alcoholic and otherwise).

To one side was a huge black curtain, hiding at least half of the room from view. We all knew that the exciting stuff was lurking behind it, but a bunch of enormous security staff made sure that no-one got past the curtain. When I merely stood near it, and bent down to get something from my bag, one of the bouncers approached and politely asked me to move further away. His instructions for the day had clearly been: "Don't allow anyone to get anywhere near that black curtain."

After a fair amount of standing around and chatting, the weary crowd was asked to leave this room and walk down a series of further corridors to Studio 1. This is a massive broadcast studio, used by the BBC for things like Top of the Pops and General Election coverage. The ceiling is decked out with thousands of lights, the walls draped with more black curtains, and temporary raked seating installed in front of a large stage and video screen.

Look up!
The ceiling in Studio 1

Before the Stevenote began, Apple's European boss Pascal Cagni came on stage to welcome everyone and make a short pitch of his own. He revealed that the first Apple Store in mainland Europe would soon be opening in Rome, and that another store would open soon in Brent Cross, on the northern edge of London.

Nice though it was to see Pascal in person, we all knew why we were there - to see Steve Jobs do his stuff.

Despite the unparalleled technical facilities available at the BBC, the satellite feed was not without problems. Three or four times during the keynote, the sound or video (or both) dropped out for a few seconds.

When it was all over, the huge audience (500 people, I'm guessing) had to make its way back to the first room, for the show-and-tell. Only one exit was available, with a narrow funnel leading to it; as a result, we stood for up to 10 minutes by our seats, waiting for the logjam of bodies to clear.

Again, there was a little tour through the belly of Television Centre, then we were back in the purple room, now lined with Intel Macs for us to play with. And play with them we did. Still, the drinks flowed. People crowded round the new iMacs and MacBooks, all of them loaded up with iLife. We cooed. We asked questions. The bar was still fountaining booze.

Goofing around
Goofing around with Photobooth and iPhoto on a new MacBook Pro

Most journalists will tell you that technology product launch events are much the same, no matter which company is involved. Even Apple follows the herd in many respects, especially with the never-ending river of booze on offer. But like its computers, Apple's events manage to have a certain element of style that you just don't see elsewhere. There's a better atmosphere; people tend to chat more.

Little things make a difference. It seems to me that Apple has a relatively relaxed corporate culture; I liked it that Pascal Cagni appeared on stage wearing jeans. Apple staff that I met were not just polite, they were almost bubbling with friendly greetings. During the keynote I sat next to an Apple guy from one of the European offices, whose job was to deal with independent Apple retailers. He was as much in the dark about what was about to happen as I was, and was full of comments and questions afterwards.

Apple certainly knows how to throw a party. But next time, guys, could we have a few more chairs?