I’ve written a handful of blog posts on Apple-related topics and it would be easy to come to the conclusion that I’m an Apple fanboy. But if volume of words is a metric for judging who is and is not an Apple fanboy, I think the people most violently opposed to Apple would be more easily presumed fanboys.
For right now, Apple is one of only a handful of companies striving to do great design work. Moreover, the design work they put into their platforms (especially iOS) has created an ecosystem of well-designed apps that doesn’t exist anywhere else. That may be my favorite thing about them: the apps other people develop for their platforms. I also like Apple products because they’re high quality, well designed, and they work exceptionally well for my specific purposes. If something better comes along, I’m more than happy to jump off the bandwagon.
All of that said, Apple has announced two products recently that have a lot of geeks up in arms because they seem like awful decisions: the new Macbook with only one port and the Apple Watch. I’d like to share some thoughts on each of these, both from a design perspective and the perspective of a potential user.
One more caveat is necessary before we move on. Electronic devices are tools and the value of a tool is sometimes not something that can be expressed in the technical specifications chart. If you buy the most powerful laptop in the world, but find it nearly impossible to use, it’s not a good machine for you. Therefore my evaluation of computers and devices is based not just on technical specifications, but also things like ease of use and overall experience. This is an important metric that many people—especially geeks—often leave out.
The Laptop Itself
Let me begin by saying that I am in no way interested in this new Macbook. As I type, my laptop is plugged into a USB mixer, a 27-inch monitor, a power supply, and my speaker system. I’m using both monitors and I only occasionally have cause to use my computer for tasks that aren’t greatly aided by the use of multiple, large monitors and lots of things plugged into my computer. At work, I actually have three monitors and use all of them every hour of the day. I would find the new Macbook altogether frustrating to use for the following reasons:
- It only has one port and a less-than standard port at that.
- The size of the screen is insufficient for my purposes.
- It is only about half as fast as my current laptop.
But what we need to keep in mind here is that computers are emphatically not “one size fits all” devices. There are huge demographics that would find my 15-inch Macbook to be too heavy to carry around in their bag everywhere, too large to be opened comfortably on an airplane, and too expensive for their purposes. Most self-professed geeks would identify with me my reasons for not wanting the new Macbook, but that’s okay. Ben Thompson explains:
Geeks are not just unqualified to explain the new MacBook, they’re anti-qualified.
— Ben Thompson (@monkbent) March 12, 2015
If you don’t like the idea of a computer with only one port, my strongest advice is that you don’t buy one. But then the question comes, is there a demographic for whom a single-port small laptop would be a good tool? I think so. At first I thought this was college students, but it’s a bit too expensive for them. Really, I think this is for middle-class people whose computing needs are relatively basic: writing blog posts, checking Facebook, managing finances, editing and collecting pictures of their kids, and the rest of it.
When I think about it, if I didn’t need a second monitor for design/development projects and didn’t record a podcast, I’m not sure I’d plug things into my laptop (besides power) hardly at all. I need to use a thumb drive maybe twice a year, so an adapter is no big deal for that—plus USB-C is going to be the new standard so the next drive I’m handed might actually be a USB-C drive.
I think what Apple has done here is asked what the bare minimum they can put in a computer is while still keeping it useable useable for plumbers, accountants, and soccer moms. They’ve done this quite well, in my opinion, because they’ve created a computer that can practically be slipped into even some purses with hardly a second thought.
Keep in mind that this new Macbook, at its thickest point, is only 0.02 inches thicker than the original iPad—it also weighs only half a pound heavier. For a more modern comparison, it’s almost half a pound lighter than the Macbook Air 11 inch, which is eerily light to begin with. This is the computer for people who don’t like computers. It’s so aggressive about minimalism that it’s only barely there, just like most non-computer people would like there computer to be.
Something should also be said about the engineering on this device. It’s a masterpiece of innovations. From the battery stacking to the redesigned keyboard, it’s a rebuild of previous macs from the ground up. The internals of the thing are only slightly larger than those of the iPhone and I don’t expect anyone to make something this minimalistic and powerful any time soon. It’s the sort of giant step forward in portable computing that only Apple was capable of taking.
Apple has always tried to have a better understanding of what everyday people want in computers than anyone else. Computer geekss typically heckle them for not creating the devices they want, but Apple simply isn’t marketing to them. If you want a phone with an SD card slot and a customizable home screen so you can have a screen with an SSH terminal to your home server that you built from scratch to run Gentoo, then go ahead and buy an Android phone. You’ll probably love it, but most other people just want an easy-to-use phone that makes calls and lets them watch cat videos.
In short, we all (myself included) complained when the Macbook Air came out with no CD-ROM drive, but now that has become quite standard. The death of the optical drive was driven mostly by the purchasing habits of everyday people who wanted a truly portable computer more than they wanted unlimited expandability and a fast CPU. I’ve learned my lesson and I’m expecting this new Macbook to sell like the hotcakes its thinness causes it to resemble so very much.
My next post will deal with the more controversial Apple Watch.