It used to be so exciting. Yesterday, Apple announced what’s almost certainly the best smartphone in existence. Yet something felt off. Maybe we’ve begun to expect too much, but it was the first iPhone keynote that was a chore to watch, in which every new feature and piece of hardware seemed iterative, or sometimes just plain ugly, in which Apple simply didn’t get what was cool anymore.
Is that Apple’s fault or our own? After all, the free market demands new products, and my contract is up!
I’m blaming Apple, but I mean that as a compliment. With their watershed touch-screen interface—a window into another world that de-emphasizes the physical product as a minimal slab of metal and glass—Apple has almost designed themselves out of the design business. The iPhone was as perfect and timeless as products come. Then, after a few updates, Apple solved its critical usability issues and changed the way the world communicated on whole. At that point, I’d argue that the iPhone was complete. So maybe that’s why, yesterday, the company that once sold us all on design instead focused on the iPhone 5's specs—megahertz, megapixels, a bigger screen, and wireless data standards. It felt like a geeky ode to Moore’s Law rather than an homage to Dieter Rams.
Apple screwed up. They refused to put the chisel down. They stretched iPhones, added more icons, and generally did things just for the sake of doing them. It’d be easy to finger a missing link—Steve Jobs—who was notorious for quality control and honing products. And indeed, the appearances by so many faces—not just Tim Cook, but heads of divisions across Apple—seems to signal a shift in responsibility, from one stubborn opinion to a Sony-esque confused collection of departments.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with technical iteration. Everyone appreciates sharper photos and longer battery life. But while we’ve come to expect a bit less from the off-years, the 3GSs and 4Ss, this was the iPhone 5. It was the flagship. The public is demanding another great flagship, yet when you begin altering its great design just to alter it, that’s when you’re trying too hard. That’s when you stop being cool. And that’s where Apple went yesterday.
Ultimately, that sick feeling we all have in our guts right now is only being exacerbated by our own peer pressure: Apple has built their iDevices too well to keep modifying without doing some damage to the original work. Michelangelo wasn’t expected to make a thinner, faster, and all around more handsome David 3. But Apple is. And in light of that fact, here’s the worst of what I saw in Apple’s presentation yesterday:
The Paper Shredder
"Here’s a ticket for a baseball game. Here’s one I’ve gone to—so I tap the trash button … and we’ll shred that for you."
- Scott Forstall
Yesterday, Apple proudly demonstrated their new paper shredder animation, which "shreds" some of your most personal documents, like boarding passes, stored within the new Passport app. Of course this is a silly metaphor. You can’t shred bytes, you merely delete them. And even when deleted, they’re not really gone from a hard drive until they’ve been written over. Shredding is actually more secure than deleting.
But there’s a deeper worry I have about this whole shredder reference: How many of us still use shredders? How familiar is this visual metaphor in 2012 to a population that receives paperless bank statements and buys toilet paper on Amazon? What’s next, dialing numbers via swiping a rotary phone?
We’ve talked a lot about skeuomorphism, and how it’s plagued Apple since the rise of Gamecenter and Jobs’s insistence that the OS be stitched like the seats in his private jet. Still, why does this one tendency bother us so much? Apple’s been wrong before. When Apple refused to make certain design concessions, as in famously building the G4 Cube computer that couldn’t cool itself or refusing to add iOS copy and paste, the impulse seemed like that of a maniacal artist, or a mad scientist with no morals and a penchant for aesthetics. They thought they knew better for us. It was commendable in a way.
But this hands-over-the-ears, salt-in-the-wound shot by Forstall had an entirely different vibe to it than Apple’s stubbornness of yore—one of tone-deaf singer insisting they had the melody correct, and turning up the microphone in gleeful protestation to a groaning audience. In all honesty, it would have been kinda funny, if all this skeuomorphism weren’t becoming so difficult to tune out.
The New iPod Nano
"It’s the biggest display we’ve ever put in a nano at 2.5-inches. And it’s multi-touch."
- Greg Joswiak
When Apple gave us the iPad, and it was really just a big iPhone, they changed the world. When Apple gave us the iPad nano, today, and it was really just a super tiny iPhone, they lived up to every single "it’s even smaller!" iPod parody ever made. There’s no reason to mince words: The iPod Nano is hideous and appears borderline unusable. Its "biggest ever" 2.5-inch screen was touted for supporting "widescreen video" with a straight face. Roughly 20% of its footprint is dedicated to a button—the Home button—in an age where Apple’s touchscreen technology has made virtually any interface imaginable possible.
But maybe none of that is the worst of it. The new Nano is also one of the first Apple products that’s ever incorporated me-too design at its core. Look closely at the bi-layered bezel. It’s the Nokia Lumia 900—an iPod that was placed inside of a gutted Windows Phone, like Rambo hiding from the cops in the gutted carcass of a deer.
"Five choices, and each one comes with its own loop—color coordinated."
- Greg Joswiak
The new iPod is the thinnest ever. It’s so thin, in fact, that it apparently needs to have a Wiimote-esque iShackle tethering it to your wrist at all times. This strap is technically called the Loop, and yes, Apple bragged that each color of iPod will be coordinated with its own matching Loop. Apple knows design; they can even match.
The Loop embodies the complete irony of Apple having no idea how to improve the design of their touchscreen products. The iPod never needed a strap before, but now it’s evolved to be just 6.1mm thin—which seems to be the precise dimension that a corporate beancounter realized could slip out of enough hands to cause some ridiculous class action suit. (Remember the fallout during Antennagate?)
Why didn’t Apple just make the iPod as thick as the iPhone, maybe using that extra internal space to place a larger battery in lieu of the 4G chipset? I can only assume that they’d rather sell us on an impossibly thin device, then just add a big ole strap to fix the problem because a big ole strap is another piece of plastic that people with too much money will buy.
The Loop is not like the iPad’s magnetic cover, which brilliantly—magically, even—wakes the iPad up and puts it to sleep within a natural, human motion. It’s the new bumper, an "accessory" that only has to exist because faulty iterative design necessitated it.
And One More Thing: The EarPod
But if there’s one thing that makes us truly depressed about Apple’s state of the union, it’s the new EarPod, the successor to the famous white Earbud. Because in the face of utter mediocrity, design driven by largely meaningless iteration and matching meaningless peripherals, someone in Apple is still crafting beautiful things. The EarPods will be hidden inside your ears, but its lines are flowing. The mini speakers have inertia and personality and a hint of "you ain’t seen nothing yet" futurism.
The EarPod is also entirely overdesigned, showing that some contingent—maybe Jony Ive’s closest brethren (or at least their spiritual successors)—are still holding out from a foxhole deep within Apple. Maybe they’re so focused on something new—the next paradigm-shifting thing—that they couldn’t care less about iPod straps and ugly Nanos. Let all the cheap crap pad the war chest for Apple’s next big market risk.
But either way, the true design talent within Apple has begun to feel vastly outnumbered. Even with a bajillion songs in their pockets, this playlist of hits has to come to an end some time, doesn’t it?[Thanks to The Verge and gdgt for several details.]