Apple pulled a Beyoncé early this morning, with the surprise drop of the first episode of its highly-anticipated reality show, Planet of the Apps. Like almost everything else Apple-related, much of the show has been shrouded in mystery up until now.
Beyond the fact that it's Apple's first original show — Apple Music will debut Carpool Karaoke: The Series later this summer — the biggest draw of Planet Of The Apps is its celebrity cast. Last August, Apple announced that Jessica Alba, Gwyneth Paltrow, Will.i.am, and serial entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk would serve as judges and mentors to contestants.
While the recognizable star power is impressive (and piqued my interest), after watching the first episode, it's not the main reason that I like the show as much I do. Nor do I like it because it reinvents the reality show format (it doesn't). The reason that I'll keep watching Planet Of The Apps is that it gives a very real, positive look at women in all aspects of tech. Even better, it does so subtly, without screaming out "Look! Here are women in tech! Do you see them? Silicon Valley is becoming more inclusive!"
When we hear about women in tech, we so often hear about how bad things are. Reports of income disparities, sexual harassment, and gender imbalances at major tech companies across the industry have all made headlines in recent months. All of that reporting is incredibly important. But, it's also important that we see what women in the industry are doing in their roles, in addition to the challenges they face. This is exactly what you get with Planet Of The Apps.
The show's format is a mash-up of The Voice and Shark Tank. The contestants are app developers, and they have 60 seconds to "escalator pitch" Alba, Paltrow, Vaynerchuk, and Wil.i.am and convince them that their app deserves a second look. (All of these developers have already created the first iteration of their app, and many have raised at least some funding.)
As long as the developer(s) get one green light from a judge when they step off the escalator (yes, there's actually one in the show), they have the opportunity to show some visuals of their app, explain it more fully, and answer any of the judges' questions. If more than one judge is still on board by the end of that segment, the contestant(s) can pick who they'd like to have as their mentor.
From there, contestants have six weeks to perfect their apps under their chosen mentor's guidance before pitching it to the venture capital firm Lightspeed with the hope of getting funded. (Lightspeed was the first firm to invest in Snapchat, so you get the stakes here.)
At every stage of the show, there are strong, creative women. We see women who are mentors (Alba and Paltrow), women who are developers (contestant Lexie Ernst is the standout in episode one), and a woman who is a venture capitalist. Although Nicole Quinn, one of the partners at Lightspeed, is outnumbered by her three male partners — she's there, weighing in with her insight on every app. The 45-minute episode focuses on the job at hand — the quest to build an app that will earn funding — and not just on the fact that these are women in a male-dominated industry.
That said, there is a moment in the episode where Silicon Valley's gender problems make an appearance. A trio of young men step onto the escalator to pitch their dating app, Twist. In their app, users create a profile and see a selection of nearby, upcoming events. Once they select an event to attend, they'll see the profiles of other users who will be there. The trio's main pitch is that their app will do what others don't: Ensure users meet up in person.
The judges are quick to rightly call out the major problems with the app's premise. First, there’s no mutual match component, meaning that multiple men might go to an event, all interested in the same, one woman. She meanwhile, might not be interested in any of them, but would spend the night fielding their approaches. "You go to the event and it's a sausage fest — ain't nothing but dudes," says Will.i.am. "I don't want my sister...to have any more pressure than she already has going to the club with a bunch of hawks and vultures swarming around her."
"I think you need to consider more than you and bring in some women and have their voice also sit at the table and talk to you about their realities," Alba adds.
Well said, judges. Like Shark Tank, each episode of Planet Of The Apps will have an entirely new group of contestants pitching their apps, so there's no saying how the show will fare over its 10 episode arc. But if the first episode is sign of things to come, Planet Of The Apps could create role models for a whole new generation of female developers.
The first episode of Planet Of The Apps is available for free on Apple Music. Episodes will roll out one per week and all subsequent episodes will require an Apple Music subscription ($9.99/month).