There will be a time when Apple surprises us again.

We’re bound to be disappointed.

No matter how great its fingerprint sensor is or how elegant the new gold color looks when the iPhone 5S is unveiled next week, there’s going to be an inevitable sense of disappointment when the lights come back on after Tim Cook’s wrap-up.

But it won’t be because the iPhone 5S is underwhelming or the iPhone 5C is too expensive. It’ll be because we know too much.

There was a time when an Apple event would be a great unknown. Leaks and rumors have been part of Apple’s lore for decades, but it used to be a few kernels of truth buried under piles of speculation, prototypes and concepts that were years away from fruition, if they ever saw the light of day. Each event would bring wild conjecture and giddy anticipation, but when Steve Jobs took the stage, he would always find a way to show us something we had never imagined.

The iPod in his pocket. The MacBook Air inside a manila envelope. The iMac G4 rising up out of the floor. The big reveal was an extension of the design.

All that’s gone now. Today, Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal are the most reliable rumor sites on the net. Next Tuesday, Phil Schiller will introduce the new iPhones with nary a hint of surprise; we’ll watch as he shows off whatever new features we haven’t read about (if there are any) and fervently hope he’ll be carrying something, anything, that we aren’t expecting.

But he won’t be. The element of surprise has all but left Apple’s product introductions. It’s a fascinating turn for the company, one that investors and analysts still haven’t come to terms with.

And it has nothing to do with the departure of Steve Jobs.

But it does have something to do with an Apple software engineer named Gray Powell. You see, it was his 3GS-disguised iPhone 4 that was left at a German bar and sold to Gizmodo for all the world to see, well before its scheduled unveiling. It was an unprecedented leak — the iPad had been unveiled just two months prior to swirling tablet rumors but very little solid information — but no one knew just how much of an effect it would have on future products.

Without the Gizmodo exposé, the iPhone 4 is another stunning reveal, a brilliant design turn that catches us all by surprise. Glass. Metal. Retina. Instead, its introduction at the 2010 Worldwide Developers Conference was a confirmation of what we already knew. Even the press release seemed resigned to the fact, using “presents” rather than the standard “introduces” in the headline.

It was the first time anyone beat Apple to the punch. Now it’s a regular occurrence. From the iPhone 5 to the iPad mini, every piece of hardware Apple has released since has been revealed ahead of time, piece by piece, until we have the whole picture. It’s not just Apple that deals with these sorts of leaks, of course, but no other technology company depends quite as much on the element of surprise.

But maybe it’s better this way. Without so much secrecy and hype around every event, it’s freed Jony Ive to be more surgical, more deliberate about his work. The iPhone 5 and iPad mini were hardly breakthroughs, but they rank among the best things Apple has done. There’s a subtlety to their genius, an intense attention to detail that doesn’t instantly take our breath away, but continues to surprise us in little ways. There was no big reveal, but they’re just as astonishing.

It’ll be the same with the iPhone 5S and the iPads. Internal refinements and precise enhancements will set them apart from their predecessors, but nothing about them will elicit awe. The iPhone and iPad aren’t about surprise anymore; there’s a relentless pursuit of perfection in their design that no leak can undermine.

Apple unveiled the iPhone six months early so the FCC wouldn’t inadvertently disclose its filing. Looking back at its introduction — the very pinnacle of the so-called Stevenotes — we had absolutely no idea what was coming. We hung on Jobs’ every word, barely comprehending what he was telling us. It was the ultimate prestige, a product so long rumored it had begun to feel like a myth, revealed to us when we were least expecting it.

There will be a time when Apple surprises us again. Perhaps it’ll be the iWatch or the television set we keep hearing about, but likely it’ll be something we’ve never imagined, a product so simple, so obvious, we wonder how no one thought of it before. Apple hasn’t lost its ability to innovate, it’s just shifted away from surprise as element of its latest designs.

But some day it’ll return. The anticipation just needs a little more time to build.

Find Michael Simon on Twitter or App.net @morlium.
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