Apple is a hardware design company. It owns ideas not factories. And because it runs its own operating systems, an intrinsic part of the design of its products is software. But this crucial area is showing signs of weakness as competitors copy its innovations.
1. Design is not hardware.
Announcing the launch of his hardware incubator at London's Royal College of Art, this month, James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner guy) said something which may seem obvious but is nonetheless very controversial: "Apple's success as a technology company is built on hardware. The current fixation with digital is misplaced."
There you have it, the Internet bubble is a vacuum, as stated by the man who made billions selling them. Apple is not like Google or Facebook, Yahoo, Ebay or Oracle or the other Silicon Valley stars because it primarily makes physical things. And things, according to Dyson, employ people and have a proven business model: You sell them.
Although, even in its beleaguered state, Facebook is worth significantly more than General Motors, it doesn't have a clearly defined business model and employs 3,000 people vs GM's 200,000. Stand outside an Apple store, on the other hand, and you'll see the equivalent of the price of a Porsche fly out the door every minute in little $500 brick sized packages. This, according to Dyson, is the success of Apple as a hardware company. And it's certainly true that people will pay for hardware. A book is a gift, an ebook not so much.
But is Apple really a hardware company in the sense that Dyson is championing, or is it a design company? Its products don't say made in America, they say "Designed in California" and are made in China. Apple employs 47,000 people in the US (mostly in stores) but 250,000 are employed in China assembling its products. On the other hand Apple's success means indirect jobs in the US. Independent estimates put these between 300,000 and 400,000. About 40-percent of these are IOS developers, so this doesn't pertain to Dyson's argument that we must focus on physical design. Even the Germans, who do make things, make a substantial portion of their money making machine tools for China to make more things that are then not made in places like Germany.
Design consists of the ideas that make things; it's not much different from software in that it isn't tangible. By being a design rather than a manufacturing company, Apple is actually more like a software company than a traditional manufacturing one.
2. Apple's design history.
[ In the late 90s it was cool to suggest that Wozniak was the real genius behind Apple ]
Apple has a history of design, but that is what almost killed it. At its nadir in the mid 90s, Apple was relegated to making niche products for graphic design—at a time when design did not have the prestige that it does in today's more mature computer industry. In mature markets, qualitative value add becomes more important, and good design is measured qualitatively whereas technology is measured in terms of numbers. Today, people care more about the ergonomics of a laptop than how much RAM it has, but that was not always the case. And when Steve Jobs returned to Apple, people would still talk about Steve Wozniak's technical skills being the real genius behind Apple.
[ technical specs used to matter a lot more than design ]
In many ways, the transition to today's design culture at Apple came about through it embracing a more geeky side. Before OSX, Apple's operating systems did not provide access to the command line, and there was a certain elegance to the packaging of software into three monolithic pieces: executables; control panels, and extensions. System 7 was conceptually more like IOS than OSX in that you couldn't tinker under the hood.
[IOS shares the organizational simplicity of original Mac OS]
What was under the hood mattered, however. By migrating to the NeXT machine's Unix-based operating system, Apple had a solid and robust engine that would appeal to developers, even if it was at the expense of some user experience complexity. While the workings of OSX were unselfconsciously techie, its look and feel was much less sober: the 'aqua' styling with its liquid metaphor. Reflections and glossy highlights were perhaps seductive, but they weren't restrained or minimalist—terms that are often applied to Apple because of its style elsewhere.
[ the ‘aqua' user interface style of OSX with its glossy buttons and liquid reflections was hardly minimalist ]
At the same time as the operating system overhaul, Steve Job's return to Apple was signified by the playful design of the candy colored iMac. But this wasn't the product that really kickstarted the Apple of today, which is associated with monochrome modernism (even the logo ditched its color) rather than bright colors and postmodern whimsy. In 2001 Apple launched the Titanium Powerbook, a laptop that had both the outer and inner beauty of a sports car; if you spent much of your day in front of a machine, this was the one to own. Throughout the early 2000's the illuminated Apple logo became more and more ubiquitous at technology conferences as people switched from their company-owned desktops to these highly personal luxury devices.
[The Titanium Powerbook, the product that rooted Apple's modernist design among tech influencers - source]
If the Titanium Powerbook was the device that signified Apple's rebirth, two other portable products—the iPod and the iPhone—were the other pillars on which the world's largest company was built. And both of these were equally modernist, designed in the style of Dieter Rams' seminal work for Braun in the 60s and 70s.
[ Dieter Rams' work at Braun is the direct inspiration behind Apple's product design - source ]
3. Apple design today.
Apple's hardware is still best-of-breed. An iPhone is the best designed phone at any price, but in terms of raw specification, products like the Samsung Galaxy SIII beat it in several respects. Maybe Apple will produce a new groundbreaking device, such as the iPod or iPhone that has no equivalent and gives it a huge lead again, but for now it looks like the touch screen phone is a ubiquitous product which has many competitors.
As the hardware standardizes, increasingly much of the value add in Apple hardware design is software. From its beginnings, Apple chose the opposite path to IBM and Microsoft, making both the operating system and the hardware. This allows it to integrate the two without requiring inter-operable standards. It also implies that where the hardware has to integrate with the software (e.g. what's happened with default maps on a phone), the software is made by Apple and often has to be better than people who specialize in whatever that thing is. This ‘do everything' approach is obviously a difficult and risky thing to pull off, but the potential payoff is great. Software is important for Apple.
[ Apple Maps showed that even if you are the world's biggest company, its difficult to do everything yourself ]
The 3 tiers of Apple software design
Apple's software design exists on three levels: the OS, the proprietary apps, and the infrastructure that pulls together third party apps and content. At each level it must be world-beating, but increasingly, it is not best of breed, and products often show signs they have come from the world before cloud computing.
Design Tier 1: the new OS that's more similar to system 7
IOS is a return stylistically to the pre-OSX days of an operating system that was focused on ease of use at the expense of technological tinkering. You have to void the warranty to get access under the hood, and the model of non-multitasking applications rather than browser based software is in many ways a throwback to pre-web days. The difference between IOS and System 7 however, is that it works. The reliability of the Unix engine shows. At the same time, the both OSX and IOS are more elegant than rival products. The IOS interface is controlled and well designed in a way the Android simply isn't, from small details such as keyboard layouts and icon designs, Apple's product is a qualitatively better.
[ Does your granny use vi? OSX brought back the command line access, while IOS went back to one which didn't even multi-task ]
Design Tier 2: the apps
All of Apple's default applications, Safari, Mail, iPhoto, calendar, and utilities are not necessarily best of breed. Is Mail better than Gmail, Safari better than Chrome? Chrome is more fluid, has some nice minimalist touches that it innovated before Apple (no separate search and url box) but is architecturally similar.
Other apps such as the iPhoto are fundamentally different, however. They stem from designs in a previous era where cloud computing did not exist and the belt and braces approach of local syncing rather than caching was the norm. Nowhere is this more apparent than Spotify vs iTunes: rent access to all the world's music in the cloud, streamed and cached locally, vs buying and downloading music. Google's applications, on the other hand, were designed for cloud computing from the start.
Apple still differentiates iPhone models based on storage capacity. A 64 GB iPhone costs $200 more than a 16GB one, for something that on Android involves buying a memory card for less than half that—but this differentiation becomes completely moot when you have access to unlimited GB via the cloud, and your phone's memory is merely a cache.
There are a handful of apps on the periphery of Apple functionality, however, that show that Apple's design control is not total, since they belong to a completely different aesthetic than the house style.
[ Apple takes the Dieter Rams influence into its calculator interface ]
Two of the utilities that come standard with the iPhone are the calculator and compass apps. The calculator shows a direct reference to the designer who most influenced Apple's hardware, Dieter Rams. It has an interface which is an almost exact replica of a vintage Braun calculator, produced when he was head of design there. It is vintage but modernist nonetheless. If this were merely a direct copy of something physical, the only argument for defending the calculator would be that it is somehow more appropriately modern. The reason this is not pastiche is that the braun calculator was designed with an easy to read keyboard, with clear but subtle color coding and well laid-out keys. This translates into the digital realm to produce something ergonomic.
[ Apple's wayward, fake brass and lacquered wood, compass app ]
The compass, however, is designed to look like a historical nautical one. The bevel is fake brass and the background luxurious polished hardwood that's made up of 1s and 0s. Digital brass and polished wood doesn't cost any more than digital plastic, so the luxury is false. The effect suffers from the same thing that plagued American industrial design in the 70's. Jim Rockford's wood effect answer phone, teak-encased TVs or vinyl wood paneled cars. It carries across to other Apple products such as the ebook reader and Gamecenter.
Note that BOTH of these designs are skeuomorphs, one taking plastic and reproducing it digitally and the other polished wood and brass, but the difference is that the Braun plastic design has some ergonomic use. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with skeuomorphs, the whole of classical architecture (wood represented in stone) is based on skeuomorphism, as is most software interaction (ie, the fake metal of chrome buttons). Microsoft has swung violently against skeuomorphism, away from the visual clues that fake metal achieves with Windows 8 in a way that is sure just to confuse people who may be unable to differentiate between buttons and content.
[ Technologists have suddenly learned the word skeuomorph, using it entirely pejoratively, but there is nothing wrong with skeuomorphism per se, all of western architecture and almost all successful interaction design is based on it - source]
The problem of fake wood and leather in digital design is not skeuomorphism, but realism vs abstraction. If you try and make things literally look like objects in the real world you end up in the realm of something which is trying to be something else. There is a lack of honesty and self awareness about this approach and everything ends up looking like a video game.
Video game design often imitates something in the real word because it is drawing you into a fantasy world. Interaction design is supposed to help your real world experience rather than immersing you in something else, and so abstraction is more ergonomic.
[ game UI - design to immerse me in the idea of being in control of something important and complicated, like flying a spaceship ]
Interaction design is something you should be able to look at and understand, rather than something that should conjure up an emotional association which stimulates your imagination.
[ Nest's excellent interaction design - a dial with a number - source ]
As a rule, interaction design should be something you look at for what it is in its own right, not what is is associated with. There should be no Naked Lunch moment where you realize what's there is deceptively off putting.
While it's true that Apple design has never been as amateur as, say, Microsoft's Windows games—Solitaire and Minesweeper had all the design flair of a slot machine—these were clearly afterthought apps, but Apple's oddly incongruous software design aesthetic extends right into some of its core products.
[ the tacky and non-luxurious design of iCal where the stitching is supposedly based on the interior of Job's private jet. ]
Because people hero worshipped Jobs, people have often assumed that it was Jobs that was the principal arbiter of Apple taste and that where it was lacking, he mustn't have been involved. Just as people would whisper in the 90s that Wozniak was the genius behind Apple as a tech company, people now assume that Jobs was the genius behind Apple as a design one.
[ Jobs dressed like an architect from the waist up and like someone who couldn't care less about design from the waist down. Like his clothing, his design sensibility was probably divided unequally. - source]
But in a recent article by Austin Carr, at Co Design, several people who worked at Apple claim that Jobs was indeed involved in some of the faux-realist products that don't sit well with the rest of Apple.
According to Carr, for the design of the IOS game center, "Steve pushed very hard to have everything—the felt-cloth table, the game chips—look like they would in real life"
The heavily skeuomorphic design of some of Apple's software products may not have been because Jobs wasn't interested in them, but more likely because the teams that had brought modernist design to hardware were not the same for software. Jobs never claimed to be able to design or even articulate what he wanted from design, but he said he knew it when he saw it. Perhaps software teams at Apple, didn't bring him an alternative.
Perhaps what Apple needs, above all, is a Jonathan Ive for software.
[ Apple needs one of the above for software ]
Design Tier 3: Infrastructure.
There is a third level of design problem at Apple. It has to do with the platform. The product that is the lynchpin of them all— iTunes and the App Store—is a product which is a platform. In some ways it's just as important as an operating system because it's the gateway to all of the content and applications that help make Apple's hardware so vibrant. Unfortunately, it's one of Apple's worst offerings.
[ Apple's cloud initiatives feel like they are about syncing (beaming information) to different devices, rather than creation in one place in the cloud, which is the model of Google's products]
4. Total control of the User Experience, Apple retail design.
So Apple is a design and retail company that designs and sells hardware. Of the 3 components to a manufacturing business: design, build and sell, Apple does the stuff at both ends but not in the middle, but where it takes most control is in selling. Most of its employees are involved in retail, and the company focus is on supply chain, from design to fulfillment. Which is why the CEO that Jobs chose to replace him, Tim Cook, has a background in supply chain management. But even at the retail end, Apple is more about design than logistics.
Apple has redesigned the retail experience. Stores are not stores in the literal sense of being warehouses of products; they are modernist gallery spaces for modernist products that are displayed in a way that is more reminiscent of precious items in a museum that the aisles of a supermarket.
[ Total Control Retail, by design ]
Perhaps the most revolutionary product Apple has ever designed is its retail store environment. Most retail design is about artifice, scenery design as a backdrop for products that try and sell you an idea, Apple retail design is about authenticity and customer service. Apple stores use solid wood tables, shot blasted steel, stone floors and toughened glass, and they devote a large percentage of space to education via the theater and support via the genius bar. If the design inspiration for Apple products is Dieter Rams, the inspiration for these high tech temples is the high priest of High Tech architecture, Norman Foster.
[ If Dieter Rams is the influence behind Apple products, Norman Foster is the influence behind Apple retail design - source]
Foster designed the form that became the inspiration for the most iconic of Apple's early flagship stores, creating a glass stair through a central atrium in a box like building, for the Carre D'Art in Nimes, France. This is the architectural precedent which indirectly influenced retail spaces such as NY's Soho Apple store, which were created by a variety of architectural firms a decade later. Apple's headquarters takes this design influence full circle: It was designed by Foster himself.
[ Foster's Carre D'Art in Nimes is the inspiration for the glass stair Apple stores - source]
5. Apple's future design strategy.
Apple's uncompromising control is a mixed blessing. The software industry has operated for many years by balancing open source with proprietary systems. Google is the principal challenge to Apple here, from the Android Operating System to a suite of cloud based applications such as Gmail, Drive, and Maps. Google's approach is more open. As Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn exert increasing control over their social graphs, people forget that these were built on invites via Gmail.
Apple has the edge on design excellence, the keyboard on IOS is just that bit better designed than Android's which overall feels mess, but the biggest current advantage is vulnerable. Like Microsoft's platform dominance in the late 80s there are far more applications on IOS than on Android, and the App store is far better stocked than Google's equivalent, 'Play'. But you can't help feeling that Apple's centralized control over the apps ecosystem lacks the richness of a community driven effort. The App store is Encyclopedia Britannica and it's vulnerable to a Wikipedia.
The future for Apple is to increase the leverage of software vs hardware design advantage for the devices that become difficult to differentiate from competitors such as Samsung. But a radical option to the best way of doing this may come from what Apple are already indirectly doing and Gillette made famous.
Gillette realized that if you give people a really nice razor, cheaply, you could keep charging them a premium for refill blades that fit it. This is the way that the inkjet printer business works—cheap hardware and expensive refills. Nespresso does it too.
[ Giant backdrops of coffee capsule refills at the Nespresso store in Barcelona with it's Apple like control over retail experience and Gillette-like business model of subsidized hardware and refills - source]
Apple doesn't quite do this with iTunes—the software is still there to sell hardware, but the carriers sell Apple phones. You sign a two year contract with a cell phone provider and get an iPhone for $200 rather than $700. This the Gillette model, but without the control that they usually exert by doing it themselves.
Perhaps the logical end game for Apple is to become a network or content provider, collecting rent via the Gillette model of subsidized hardware.
Although this is very unlikely to happen, if Apple were a carrier—or even an MVNO—it would have a complete offering that would give it strategic leverage to do a good job where it is weak (cloud) and where others offer a service which is inferior to the usual Apple level of quality.
Regardless of the outcome, elegant design will become an increasingly important part of Apple, not just for hardware, and it may need the design sensibility of Jonathan Ive in other areas.
David Galbraith is a designer and co-founder of several Internet companies
including Yelp. He used to be an architect, working for Norman Foster. He's designed of all sorts of things from skyscrapers to software applications, but specializes in designing the obvious. He created the visual bookmark concept behind Pinterest, the one-line bios used by Twitter and Facebook, and co-created RSS.
Photo by flickr user geekjustin, used under Creative Commons license.