Apple is Both Tone Deaf and in Tune

Settle in as I express my deep disappointment at Apple, and then turn around and vigorously defend them on a totally separate point. On one issue, I find them being arbitrarily and arrogantly dismissive of an enormous proportion of their users, and on another, I find them  with what users need and want from a smartphone. They are simultaneously in tune and tone deaf. I know, it’s dizzying! Join me, won’t you?

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Photo credit: woodleywonderworks via Foter.com / CC BY

As you are no doubt aware, the newly-announced iPhone 7 and 7 Plus do not have standard headphone jacks. No reason they’ve offered up for this decision holds water to me, and the fact that Phil Schiller characterized the decision as an example of “courage” is simply laughable. There’s no feature or innovation of the iPhones 7 that, as far as I can tell, required nixing the headphone jack. And its presence wouldn’t have prevented them emphasizing Lightning port-connected or wireless headphones. They could still have included Lightning headphones in the box, if they really think they’re so much better than analogue headphones.

I know the term is becoming cliché, but ditching the headphone jack is user-hostile. iPhones, to be sure, are high-end luxury devices, and on paper you might presume that anyone who can afford one can certainly make a change to all-wireless or all-Lightning headphones without much pain. But we all know that freaking everyone has iPhones. With carrier subsidies and installment plans, iPhone owners span economic strata. People of all means, ages, and technical acumen own iPhones, and want to have the latest iPhones.

Headphones, meanwhile, are a real democratizing technology. Yes, there are high-end headphones that cost ridiculous amounts of money, and even “mid-range” headphones are out of reach for many consumers. But anyone can afford cheap earbuds and enjoy the audio on their phones. Companies like Panasonic make incredibly inexpensive and well-regarded headphones that anyone can buy and afford to replace if they get lost or break. Headphones can be had by anyone, and enable anyone to hear what their phone can produce.

Apple doesn’t care about that anymore. I know they included a Lightning-to-analogue adapter, but people will lose it. They included Lightning EarPods in the box, but those will also get lost or break. And millions and millions of people already own headphones they already like, and Apple’s decided that it doesn’t really matter. Headphones were the great equalizer for these astoundingly-great, expensive, high-end electronics. Not anymore, as far as Apple’s concerned, and I think that kind of sucks.

This is part of why this is not analogous to Apple’s rejection of previous computing standards, like their nixing of floppy drives from the iMac and the end of optical drives in latter-day MacBooks: the user-base of floppy and optical drives does not begin to approach the universality of analogue headphones. Excluding floppy and optical drives in computers effected a certain subset of consumers who 1) used computers, 2) used Macs, and 3) made regular use of those drives. That’s a fraction of a fraction of a fraction. On the other hand, we have the set if people who use iPhones (approximately 79 bazillion), and the subset of those who rely on the headphones jack (approximately all). It’s a failed analogy.

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Photo credit: Luis Marina via Foter.com / CC BY

Now, they have every right to change their product any way they choose, and the market can decide whether or not such a change is a deal-breaker. But that doesn’t mean I think it’s wise or in keeping with the ethos I feel like they purport to be guided by.

Okay, now, take a breath, I am now going to defend Apple. Here’s the New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo on the iPhone 7, who says “Apple’s aesthetics have grown stale.”

As competitors have borrowed and even begun to surpass Apple’s best designs, what was iconic about the company’s phones, computers, tablets and other products has come to seem generic. …

… The bigger problem is an absence of delight. I recently checked in with several tech-pundit friends for their assessment of Apple’s aesthetic choices. “What was the last Apple design that really dazzled you?” I asked.

There was a small chorus of support for the MacBook, the beautifully tiny (if functionally flawed) laptop that Apple released last year. But most respondents were split between the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 5 — two daring smartphone designs that were instantly recognized as surpassing anything else on the market.

Readers of this blog know that I have not been an iPhone user since the 5S, and have happily been in the land of Android…almost too happy. So I have no brand-identity motivation to defend Apple’s choices. (I mean, I just got finished crapping all over them, so.)

I’ve heard a lot of this kind of hand-wringing over the fact that the iPhone hasn’t changed in its broader design over three product generations. I shared some of this feeling for a while, wondering why Apple hadn’t been going out of its way to blow us all away with some delightful new novelty in phone design. But now I think I get it.

What’s a smartphone, really? It’s a computer with a touch display, meant to be held in the hand. There are theoretically any number of ways one could approach coming up with a form factor for such a device, but particularly when you’re talking about something so utterly ubiquitous as an iPhone, there’s not a lot of wiggle room left after you get down to “thin rounded rectangle.”

Now, I adore some of the more novel smartphone designs of many Android phones. I thought the LG G4 was surprisingly wonderful with its leather back and ever-so-slightly curved screen; Motorola’s 2014/2015 aesthetic with sloping backs, rear “dimples,” and metallic edges I thought was delightfully striking; the Nextbit Robin is beautifully quirky and industrial; and of course Samsung’s current line of Galaxy S and Note devices are almost jewel-like. They’re all great.

But the current iPhone design is great, too. I’ll admit, I at first was a little underwhelmed by the look of the 6-era iPhones when they were introduced. But hold a 6/6S Plus in your hand (without a case) and the cold, smooth feel of it is startling. You almost feel like you shouldn’t be trusted with something like it. Before we switched carriers, my wife had the black iPhone 6-regular, and I was jealous of it. Not for its software experience, but just for that shape and that color.

But even if I hadn’t personally found the iPhone design so evocative and attractive, the market has spoken, and it has said loud and clear with the chorus of tens of millions of voices, “This design is great.” People like the shape and feel of iPhones as they are now.

And that design also just works. People find it sufficiently ergonomic, and the basic form factor allows Apple to put into the phone what it feels like it has to (at least up until its rebuff of the 1/8″ aux port). You know what that also sounds like? Computers. Which the iPhone is, by the way.

Look at Apple’s MacBooks. They fiddle around the edges of the design, but all in all, their laptops have looked more or less the same since 2001. The biggest shift in design was the MacBook Air which morphed to the current-day suffix-less MacBook, and that’s been consistent since 2011. This is because those forms work really, really well and also happen to look really good. And really, the entire laptop industry is essentially made up of products that are variations on screen-that-folds-down-on-keyboard. I mean, tablets haven’t been able to meaningfully hurt laptops because it turns out that the platonic laptop form is just about right.

Here’s more from the Manjoo piece:

The company says it does not change its designs just for the sake of change; the current iPhone design, which debuted in 2014, has sold hundreds of millions of units, so why mess with success? In a video accompanying the iPhone 7 unveiling on Wednesday, Jonathan Ive, Apple’s design chief, called the device the “most deliberate evolution” of its design vision for the smartphone.

As much as I have been rolling my eyes at the grand pronouncements of Jonny Ive of late, I agree with him here. The design is deliberate, not the result of a lack of vision. They got it right in 2014, right for the market as it exists. To interpret the fact that they didn’t totally overhaul the iPhone form (perhaps a sphere? or something like this?) as a lack of vision or chops is, I think, short-sighted, and probably a symptom of focusing on a relatively new device category as it starts to mature.

I think it’s enough that each new phone released by any manufacturer is better than its predecessor. There are a lot of ways to be “better,” and only one of them is cosmetically.

And shit, you’re just going to put a case on it anyway.

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Unaligned Ports, Unhinged Punditry

I really respect Rene Ritchie at iMore. He’s a great reporter, an eloquent writer, and has a nuanced perspective of the larger tech world that few in the tech blogosphere even aspire to, let alone achieve. He really understands not just the technology, but how real human beings, the “normals,” use technology. Check out his review of the iPad Air from 2013, which I remember as one of the best tech reviews I’d read in a long time (and I told him so over Twitter). And overall, iMore is a very good site staffed with talented folks and stuffed with useful information on all things Apple. (I’m also a devoted MacBreak Weekly fan, on which he is a host.)
You know there’s a big “but” coming, right?

He has a piece that exemplifies for me the worst excesses of Apple apologetics, lauding Apple for centering and aligning the ports and speaker grill at the bottom of the iPhone 6 (which is fine), and shaking his head at Samsung for only centering but not aligning them at the bottom of the Galaxy S6.

Ritchie says:

Some people might not care. Like painting the back of the fence or finishing the underside of the cabinet, it’s a detail that only people who take tremendous pride in craft really care about. And, of course, people who look for just exactly that kind of quality.

That’s because it takes an incredible amount of time and resources to achieve it. It takes an incredible amount of planning and coordination as well. It also takes the willingness to not do something if you feel doing it right is important enough.

To align everything along the edge of a device takes designing and mounting the boards in a certain way, and the ports and speakers, and the buttons and jacks, and the grills and every other detail so they all line up at exactly the right place at the end. Painstaking is likely an understatement.

… [O]nce you know the back of the fence wasn’t painted, not only can you never un-know it, you can never stop wondering what else wasn’t given that same care and consideration.

The principle he’s talking about is totally sound. That attention to even the tiniest detail is also why I love Apple products. But this is off the deep end. The perfect-center-alignment that Ritchie is looking for is a matter of taste, and it’s entirely subjective as to whether it matters or is indicative of anything. To Apple’s designers, and to him, aligning everything that way is pleasing and worthwhile, and so they go to painstaking effort to achieve it. Samsung’s folks probably don’t feel the same way about that kind of symmetry. Or they do, and just made the choice to allocate their time and energy to other things.

It’s a fallacy to presume that this was an oversight or neglect on Samsung’s part, and not a mere difference of priorities. The Galaxy line, while not to my own aesthetic tastes, has obviously delighted many, many people with the choices Samsung has made. They like the things Samsung said “yes” to, such as the curved screen on the Edge model, the glass on the front and back, the superior camera, etc. Some of those same people are less than delighted by their decision to say “no” to a removable battery, for example, but I can bet that their delight is unhindered by Samsung’s saying “no” to utter pan-dimensional symmetry in the ports.

This kind of nit-pickery frustrates me, not just because it seems a bit silly, but it’s part of an attitude that implies not just an aesthetic but an almost moral superiority for one design approach over another. I know that this is not Ritchie’s intent by any means, but his piece feeds into this morass of a zeitgeist among Apple pundits that creates a perception of snobbery, whether fair or not, that turns so many off. I love Apple stuff, but I am woozy from it.

Samsung’s designs are not for me, and I do indeed vastly prefer Apple’s sensibilities to Samsung’s, but I also recognize that this is just a subjective preference, and does not imply that I am therefore a better person or smarter user of technology. I think, for example, Motorola’s designs of late for the Moto X and Nexus 6 have been just as striking as Apple’s.

Just in case, I checked to see if my Nexus 6 is “aligned” to Apple standards, and while the power and volume buttons on the side are indeed aligned, the headphone jack is not aligned with the SIM card tray on the top. So obviously, it’s junk, right? As a very happy user of this phone, I clearly don’t know enough to make my own technology decisions, and Motorola and Google obviously don’t care about design or their customers.

And I’m sure their fences are disgusting.

My grossly unaligned Nexus 6. The horror.

UPDATE: My friend Justin Sapp (designer of this site’s banner), made this for me. Enjoy:

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Shaking off Some of the Apple Fussiness

John Gruber has a running joke he used to tell on his podcasts, his Rules for Success on the Internet, meant to poke fun at himself and the folks in his circle. The rules were, paraphrased:

  1. Have a clicky keyboard
  2. Be fussy about coffee
  3. Own a Sodastream

It’s so amusing to me and his audience because it’s an acknowlegdement that he and his ilk have the luxury of having quirky predelictions about certain trivial things that, in their lives, seem so important. The coffee, for example, has to be made just so, with just such a convoluted method, with very particular beans, and never any sweeteners or cream of course.

Having now had more than a few trips outside of the Apple walled garden, the fussiness of the elite Apple consumer has become more and more apparent to me. In my own experience, based on my immersion in the various websites and podcasts and other media generated by various folks in and around the tech world, there seems to be a very strong correlation between the Apple user of at least moderate affluence and what I’ll carefully call a fetishization of fussiness, having all things just so.

This is actually a stock photo, but it's close enough to a fussy minimalist Apple person's workspace. That chair would never fly, though.

Let me elaborate on what I mean by that, and make clear that I don’t mean this pejoratively. Take a look at websites like Minimal Mac or Tools & Toys, or the kinds of things promoted by Gruber, Marco Arment, Craig Mod, Sean Blanc, and others (all of which I like very much!). To varying degrees they exhibit high levels of fussiness in things like design, tech products, office products, clothing, food, typesets, and so on. You’ll see images of nearly-empty desks, save for a single computer (a Mac), perhaps a keyboard, perhaps an iPad carefully propped up, an iPhone (not in a case) docked, and probably a moleskine notebook. There are likely wood tones surrounding the technology. Everything is just so. Each object has been embued with preciousness. Android phones are not to be spoken of.

I halfheartedly aspired to this kind of Cult of the Minimalist that many of these Apple fans seem to achieve and then relentlessly hone. For good reason: this demand for a level of quality and polish from the objects we use and the things we consume is, I think, a healthy thing. Fewer distractions, less noise, less disorder – these are all things worth pursuing. Toys can’t make happiness, but the things with which you surround yourself (and choose not to) can be steps on the way to peace. (Sometimes not, of course.)

But being a little more on the outside of the Apple universe (or, at least, travelling between it and other worlds), it becomes clear that the desire for this kind of peace-through-objects can itself be a source of stress. For one thing, one can’t possibly achieve the level of minimalist artisanal nirvana seen on many of these sites without a significant outlay of cash. Beautiful, well-made, precicely crafted objects, be they phones or desks or pens, are expensive. (So are good clacky keyboards and fuss-worthy coffee and its paraphernalia, though not really Sodastreams.) Living this life of pricy simplicity also takes time, effort, and discipline to achieve. Not everyone has the luxury, nor does everyone share those priorities.

Immersing myself in the Android world has been an awakening of sorts. As beautifully designed as many Android devices are these days, and as excellent an operating system Lollipop is (and it really is), the Android world is full of noise. Websites devoted to Android, or at least in that universe, are cacophonous, frequented not by minimalists, but by tinkerers and augmenters and reconstituters. Hardware is valued more for its potential for modification and raw power rather than its ability to place one in a zen state. It’s overwhelming to newcomers from Apple-land, but it’s also fun and daring and, frankly, a bit of a relief from all the fussiness.

After playing with a bunch of different Android devices, I had occasion to handle a few friends’ iPhones 6 and 6 Plus. They are gorgeous, no question; really solid, smooth, platonic ideals of future-looking objects. I was a little envious.

But not as much as I once would have been, because as much as I admire the iPhones 6, they now also seem a little too precious. I have a red Nexus 5, a phone that came out in the fall of 2013, and it’s all plastic with visible seams and sharp corners and an ugly micro-USB port, and I just adore it. And the wide variety of shapes and sizes and even design philosophies coming from different manufacturers is fun to explore and examine and experiment with. In comparison, the Apple/iOS world feels a little staid, stationary, and a touch stuffy.

And at the same time it seems smooth and peaceful and free of the need for superfluous futzing. Most of the decisions have been made for you, and that’s a nice thing a lot of the time.

But not all of the time!

My awful, terrible dock.

I like both worlds. I like the world of disorder and cobbling and staggering variety, the world that made it seem like a good idea for me to cobble this horrible-looking and probably very temporary phone dock out of an old broken iPhone dock, a USB cable, some wire tape, a small cardboard box, and some rocks (for weight). I also like the world of simplicity and focus and refinement, where only things made by Twelve South are allowed to touch your precious glass-and-aluminum talisman. I like the mess and the fuss. Neither is The Way it Ought to Be, they’re just both ways-to-be whenever it suits you. How great is that?