Yesterday’s Apple Event featured a golden MacBook and a $10,000+ watch. Time to reflect on how on how we got there.
Jony Ive has designed some beautiful things. People kid about his “white world” in which his disembodied voice chirps on about facets of the design that most people will never even have thought about before. The revelation that he is chauffeured to work in a Bentley every day sits well with a man who designs $10,000+ watches.
Jony Ive also has a penchant for form over function and aesthetics over functionality. His Luxor Jr. iMac was his only true excursion into the realms of ergonomically correct design and it was soon replaced with the now iconic “it’s-just-a-screen! where-is-the-computer” iMac design that has changed little since.
Jony subsequently discovered “aluminum” (yes, he even knows how to pronounce it) and glass; then few years later he re-invented “gold” and “space gray”; yesterday he invented Fluoroelastomer and all-new-never-seen-before versions of stainless steel and gold.
All the while, Apple’s product owners have continued to live with ergonomic, practicality, and performance problems.
Clearly, Jony’s focus on desirability has paid off handsomely for Apple and is not about to change. As a professional Mac user, however, I find it hard to put up with iteration upon iteration of beautiful but impractical designs.
Take the iMac. The Retina iMac has a great screen, but even thought it’s the n-th iteration of the glassy front pane, the glare and reflection are still bothersome and keep me from ever wanting to use one as my main work machine. The new laminated screen technology and the new coating are a big improvement over the initial iteration, but still much worse than simply not putting glass in front of the display at all.
Take the Mac Pro. I bought a new late-2013 trash-can Mac Pro for a couple of a thousand euros to replace my previous “cheese grater” Mac Pro. It is amazingly quiet, but.. it’s not much faster than my 2010 Mac Pro because it lacks a second CPU. Instead it has a second high performance GPU.. which can’t drive 5K displays. I can purchase a 5K-compatible GPU for my old Mac Pro, but not for my new improved Mac Pro. The new Mac Pro is so small, it can (and in reality must) sit on my desk rather than under it. So now I have a mass of cables running all over my desk..
In summary, all current Macs make often inappropriate compromises in the search for aesthetics.
Enters the “MacBook”. It is gorgeous and I want to have one (in gold.. please kill me!) because it’s so desirable. It is also an incredibly hobbled piece of technology. It has a Retina screen, but at a resolution of 2304-by-1440 corresponding to a non-retina resolution of 1,152-by-720, it has the tiniest resolution on a Mac for a long time. As an application developer this means that I’ll have to seriously look into how well my UIs work on such a tiny screen.
It also has only one USB-C port, which doubles as a charger. Fewer ugly holes in the unibody enclosure yes, but what a nightmare of adapters and cables it will be to attach an external keyboard, mouse and display while charging..
Then there’s the great new keyboard with almost no travel and metal keycaps. The jury is still out, but even Wired’s two minute hands-on confirms what seems obvious: it’s likely to be awful.. even though the keys are now individually lit by their own LED.
Laptops and notebooks are ergonomic nightmares in any event, because of the crammed keyboards and fixed displays and Apple’s offerings with their mini-cursor keys and mirror-effect displays start out with a severe handicap that needs superior engineering to compensate for.
The elephant in the room is of course performance. A gaming notebook this certainly won’t be. Graphics performance is likely to be appalling given the fan-less design and the choice of CPU will prevent anything but “light” work to be performed on this gem.
Still..l I want one and I’m already trying to talk myself into getting one.. surely I could use it as a replacement for the iPad when I travel (I don’t travel) or I could use it in a coffee shop for writing code (I don’t go to coffee shops). I could get one for the kids (but it couldn’t run Minecraft).. darn I’ll just have to go and look at it in the shop and lust after it there until they shoo me away.
This was the theme from yesterday’s event: They showed a lot of gorgeous stuff but I don’t need any of it.. and it’s too expensive to buy on a whim.
The Apple Watch is the answer to a question I never asked and Apple has not done much to crystalize what that question should have been. They haven’t been able to come up with a rationale for why you would want to have a smart watch.. what it’s going to be good for.
In that way it is quite similar to the iPad. Steve Jobs clearly had no idea what you’d want to use it for beyond “surfing the internet on the couch” when he presented it.. but it has found its place.
I’m sure that the MacBook and the Apple Watch will also find their place in our lives.. and for much the same reason. We want these devices because they are desirable not because we necessarily need them, so we are actively looking for reasons to want them.
I’m not yet convinced that I will enjoy wearing an Apple Watch. In all honesty, I wouldn’t get one at all if it weren’t for the fact that my customers will expect some sort integration between my Mac and iPhone apps and their new Apple Watch.
All this is a far cry from the Apple that I fell in love with all the way back in the 1980s. The Apple IIe was my first computer (my father briefly thought of it as of his first computer). Shortly thereafter I saw the first Macintosh and it took many years of going through Atari XLs and STs and some pretty awful PCs before I could finally afford my first Mac in the early 90s.
Back then Macs were both beautiful and offered much greater practicality than PCs and Windows. Apple’s huge success since those days goes down to a large extend to the failure of Microsoft and the rest of the industry to take usability seriously until it was much too late. Even today the likes of Microsoft and the Linux “community” manage to screw up even elementary usability concepts and even though Macs have made no major advances in usability over the past decades, they remain the benchmark against which all other contenders are measured.
I’m not arguing against Apple’s search for desirability over functionality. It is clearly working for them. I’m more bemoaning the fact that today’s Apple has little in common with the multi-coloured Apple that I grew up admiring.
Some of this goes down to the absence of Steve Jobs. Steve ruled Apple with an iron fist and often successfully played the user advocate. He reigned in Jony Ive’s minimalist tendencies and despite never really living up to his own grand and egalitarian ideals, those ideals nonetheless shaped many of his sensibilities and decisions.
A $10,000+ product that is functionally the same as the $350 model but provides infinitely higher bragging rights would probably not have sat comfortably with Steve’s ideals. It does not sit comfortably with many people who were inspired by the iconic “Think Different” campaign to give the company another chance at greatness rather than turning their backs on them like the rest of the world did.
Is this the same company that could conjure the spirits of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Einstein without raising any eyebrows? No.
Today’s Apple gets its inspiration more from following the good deeds of marathon running ex-models than from the humble civil disobedience of a Mahatma Gandhi. It is more likely to feature full-page ads of David Beckham wearing an “Edition” watch than celebrating the quiet genius of Albert Einstein.
For Old-Timers like me, it’s more than a little sad.