Apple and the cult of thinness
Recently, I’ve been in the market for a new computer. After some thought, I’ve settled on an older model of the MacBook Pro, both because of its price and because it’s the last remaining Apple laptop with an optical drive, which I still occasionally use. The experience put me in mind of a cartoon posted yesterday on Reddit, which shows a conversation between an Apple user and a helpful technician: “So what’s this update you’re installing?” “I’m just removing your USB ports.” “Great!” Apple’s obsession with eliminating unsightly ports, as well as any other features that might interfere with a device’s slim profile, has long been derided, and the recent news that the headphone jack might disappear from the next iPhone has struck many users as a bridge too far. Over the last decade or so, Apple has seemed fixated on pursuing thinness and lightness above all else, even though consumers don’t appear to be clamoring for thinner laptops or phones, and devices that are pared down past a certain point suffer in terms of strength and usability. (Apple isn’t alone in this, of course. Last week, I purchased a Sony Blu-ray player to replace the aging hulk I’d been using for the last five years, and although I like the new one, the lack of a built-in display that provides information on what the player is actually doing is a minor but real inconvenience, and it’s so light that I often end up pushing it backward on the television stand when I press the power button. As far as I can tell, there’s no reason why any device that spends its entire life on the same shelf needs to be so small.)
Obviously, I’m not the first person to say this, and in particular, the design gurus Don Norman and Bruce Tognazzini wrote a long, devastating piece for Fast Company last month on Apple’s pursuit of beauty over functionality. But I’d like to venture an alternative explanation for why it has taken this approach. Apple is a huge corporation, and like all large businesses, it needs quantifiable benchmarks to drive innovation. Once any enterprise becomes big enough, qualitative metrics alone don’t cut it: you need something to which you can assign a number. And while you can’t quantify usability, or even beauty, you can quantify thinness and weight. Apple seems to be using the physical size of a device as a proxy for innovative thought about design, which isn’t so different from the strategy that many writers use during the revision process. I’ve written here before about how I sometimes set length limits for stories or individual chapters, and how this kind of writing by numbers forces me to be smarter and more rigorous about my choices. John McPhee says much the same thing in a recent piece in The New Yorker about the exercise of “greening,” as once practiced by Time, which involved cutting an arbitrary number of lines. As Calvin Trillin writes elsewhere: “I was surprised that what I had thought of as a tightly constructed seventy-line story—a story so tightly constructed that it had resisted the inclusion of that maddening leftover fact—was unharmed, or even improved, by greening ten percent of it. The greening I did in Time Edit convinced me that just about any piece I write could be improved if, when it was supposedly ready to hand in, I looked in the mirror and said sternly to myself ‘Green fourteen’ or ‘Green eight.’ And one of these days I’m going to begin doing that.”
Apple appears to have come to a similar conclusion about its devices, which is that by greening away weight and thickness, you end up with other desirable qualities. And it works—but only up to a point. As McPhee observes, greening is supposed to be invisible: “The idea is to remove words in such a manner that no one would notice that anything has been removed.” And once you pass beyond a certain limit, you risk omitting essential elements, as expressed in the book Behind the Seen by Charles Koppelman, which describes the process of the legendary film editor Walter Murch:
Murch also has his eye on what he calls the “thirty percent factor”—a rule of thumb he developed that deals with the relationship between the length of the film and the “core content” of the story. In general, thirty percent of a first assembly can be trimmed away without affecting the essential features of the script: all characters, action, story beats will be preserved and probably, like a good stew, enhanced by the reduction in bulk. But passing beyond the thirty percent barrier can usually be accomplished only by major structural alterations: the reduction or elimination of a character, or whole sequences—removing vital organs rather than trimming fat. “It can be done,” says Murch, “and I have done it on a number of films that turned out well in the end. But it is tricky, and the outcome is not guaranteed—like open-heart surgery. The patient is put at risk, and the further beyond thirty percent you go, the greater the risk.
And Apple—which has had a long and productive relationship with Murch, a vocal champion of its Final Cut Pro software—should pay attention. In the past, the emphasis on miniaturization was undoubtedly a force for innovative solutions, but we’ve reached the point where the patient is being endangered by removing features of genuine utility. Murch’s thirty percent factor turns out to describe the situation at Apple eerily well: the earliest models of the MacBook Pro weighed about five and a half pounds, implying that once the weight was reduced below four pounds or so, vital organs would be threatened, which is exactly what happened. (Even more insidiously, the trend has spread into realms where the notion of thinness is entirely abstract, like the fonts that Apple uses for its mobile devices, which, as Norman and Tognazzini point out, are so slender that they’ve become difficult to read.) These changes aren’t driven by consumer demand, but by a corporate culture that has failed to recognize that its old ways of quantifying innovation no longer serve their intended purpose. The means have been confused with the end. Ultimately, I’m still a fan of Apple, and I’m still going to buy that MacBook. I don’t fault it for wanting to qualify its processes: it’s a necessary part of managing creativity on a large scale. But it has to focus on a number other than thickness or weight. What Apple needs is a new internal metric, similarly quantifiable, that reflects something that consumers actually want. There’s one obvious candidate: price. Instead of making everything smaller, Apple could focus on providing the same functionality, beauty, and reliability at lower cost. It would drive innovation just as well as size once did. But given Apple’s history, the chances of that happening seem very slim indeed.