Thursday, November 13, 2014

Secrets of Design

A recent article in Cult of Mac has the intriguing title of 12 design secrets spilled by Jony Ive. Of course, I would love to learn some of the secrets of one of the leading designers of the current age. Although Steve Jobs is no longer at the helm, it is the skill and talent of this proven designer that keeps me optimistic about Apple’s future, even with all the copy-cats and wannabes that are buzzing around the company.

Jony even had a response to that when he was asked if copying is the sincerest form of flattery. He replied, “Eight years of work can be copied in six months. It wasn’t inevitable that it was going to work. A stolen design is stolen time. Is it flattering? No.” Since you can’t copyright concepts or patent ideas, it is the way-of-the-world that success is xeroxed by the competition.

In fact, some of the copies are improvements. That is also the way-of-the-world. Just as the Microsoft/Intel copies of Apple's leadership sold more than the original, but also gave a variety of choices and options that the single company, Apple, could never produce. Shame on those making a profit off of Apple's example, but yeah for the consumer with lower prices and wider choices. Capitalism at its raw best.

I expect Apple to learn from past mistakes and evaluate weaknesses and continually improve their products. They do that. But I don’t always agree with Apple’s choices and I’m very aware when the competition does something incrementally different that looks like a good improvement. The latest models of iPhone show that sometimes Apple will copy the competition as the larger phone sizes seem to be quite popular and Apple responded with their latest offerings.

Just one brief example. Before the iPhone, a stylus was a common input device an small screens such as the Palm Trio smart phone. Jobs hated styli and criticized them loudly. Yet, when I try to mark a section of text in the Kindle app on my iPhone or iPad, I wish I had a "sharp" stylus instead of a fat finger. The fact that some Android phones have a little pen for writing on the screen makes me jealous any time the folks at the Apple Store or anyplace else using Apple screens for point-of-sale ask me to sign the screen with my pointer finger. Oh brother! I sure wish Steve had seen this differently.

In any case, being first means you have a head-start. If you work hard, you can maintain that lead. I consider that the case with Chrysler, who invented the minivan. They stayed ahead of the completion for many years, as last year’s model was copied by other companies, only to be outdid by the next MoPar minivan. (Don’t keep that comparison too long. Chrysler quality was never on par with Apple, or Honda/Toyota.)

I was not surprised when Sir Ive spoke about “stop rendering and start making.” I know that Steve Jobs like prototypes, models, physical objects that he could hold in his hand. Sure the modern design tools can display wire-models, 3D models, colored and shaded models; but you can’t touch them. Touch is an essential part of the high tech experience and no one knows that better than Apple.

Hold an Apple product in your hand. Feel the heft, the texture, the rounded corners. That is a key part of the experience. The Mac are bare aluminum. Sure IBM tried to be cool with their black ThinkPads (which were cool), and extended that color scheme to their biggest products. It seemed like Big Blue was becoming Big Black. Apple experimented with clear plastic rainbow colors and white laptops. White is still a popular color for Apple accessories and cables. The color and finish of Apple computers and phones, pods and pads, is real 21st century. Raw metal in its unpolished and polished glory.

What surprised me about the interview was when Jony said that “Making gadgets smaller is inevitable.” He gets a lot of flak for shrinking Apple devices down to impossibly small form factors, but according to Ive, he’s not doing it to be cute, it’s just the inevitable progress of technology.

“It’s our human condition: when you see potent phenomenal technology you want to make it smaller cheaper better more reliable”

That statement made me reconsider the iWatch … or any copy of the iWatch. (Ironic that so many other companies already have wrist attached offerings, including Microsoft. Yet we’re still waiting for Apple’s product. Some of it is because the iWatch was a rather poorly kept secret or the subject of a lot of good guesses. Some of that is because Apple wants to get it right the first time.)

I have written about the iWatch before. I’m frankly not exactly sure what will become of this product line and its hundreds or even thousands of copy-cat products. I get the idea of body sensing and health applications. I get the idea of checking and answering a phone call or text on your wrist without having to remove your phone from your pocket. I get the idea of personal electronics from computers in clothes to computers in glasses to computers on your wrist. But I still had doubts and need someone to “show me.”

I found it very interesting, and typical of Apple, that so much thought went into the user interface of the iWatch. Jon said that was really the toughest design he’d ever done. Now I think I understand the motivation better. What is next? Could it be the iRing? Or the iPostageStamp. Or the iContactLens. Maybe it will be the iDot. (Here. Stick this dot in your eye.)

Like a game of limbo, how "low" can you go? As Ive said, “when you see potent phenomenal technology you want to make it smaller, cheaper, better, more reliable” … and more "Apple."

I expect Apple to do that. I expect Apple has done that. I expect that the iWatch will be as revolutionary as the other diminutive Apple products from pod to pad to macAir. I'm just curious what will come after that.


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