Over the past 20 years, Apple (AAPL) has set the design standard for the PC and gadget markets with its revolutionary ideas about the shapes and sizes of the technology we use. The iMac, the iPod, and the iPhone have all been massive successes and have evolved to the point of unrecognizability; of those three series, only the current iPhone still looks anything like its original version.
This evolution may have reached its apex with the newest iMac, which is set to be released on Friday. The desktop's ultra-slim profile, its axing of the so-last-century optical drive, and its elimination of almost everything that is not the display are perhaps the last things Apple can do toward its design goal of making everything smaller, thinner, and faster.
But that wasn’t always Apple's approach, and some critics have of late been less enthusiastic about the head-down, full-steam-ahead drive towards a slimmer and more streamlined product. After all, Apple was once the company whose designs elicited more joy than reverence, more curiosity than comfort.
Remember the first time you saw an iPod? Sure, its size was impressive compared to the clunky MP3 players it was replacing, but its pure weirdness and otherness were its main draws. It's no secret that the body of the character Eve from Pixar's WALL•E was based on Apple products: Sleek and contoured, sure, but ultimately rounded, curved, and lovable.
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So now that Apple has perhaps hit the limits of what it can feasibly remove from its products, where do its famed designers go from here? I, with my extensive design experience (I once built a refrigerator with a mirror in the back so you can see all the stuff that gets stuck behind big things -- seriously, I did, and I didn't even win the Invention Convention!), have a couple of ideas.
Work on the Cooling Problem.
Since Apple's devices have become more powerful, they've run into major overheating problems. Ever worked with a MacBook Pro on your lap for any length of time? After an hour or so, your thighs start to resemble twin pork roasts and you will smell the glorious smell of singed Levis. Apple's engineers, though, have been less than forthcoming with solutions, essentially telling their customers to deal with the problem on their own (perhaps by buying those weird cooling lap-desks).
As all our devices become increasingly mobile and increasingly powerful, battery design has got to be a concern for Apple. How do you power something like an iPhone 5 for any length of time without generating an enormous amount of heat? It may be time to re-think the classic lithium-ion model that has improved but not changed since we first stuck them in our iPods more than a decade ago. The idea of wireless power, once only great for impressing dopes like me, should drive the engineers towards weird and wonderful new ways for our devices to consume energy.
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Apple products used to look less like weapons and more like toys. Two simple things have changed: Material and color. In college, I had the original MacBook, that elegant white marvel that was the best-selling laptop computer in recent memory and the most popular Macintosh ever. Did it have problems because it was made of a bunch of different pieces of plastic rather than one piece of aluminum? Sure, but it looked like what it was: Not just a tool but a companion, the perfect machine for college students who wanted to play as much as work.
If Apple wants to have another smash hit, it should look to its own iPod line for inspiration. The portable music players are now available in vibrant colors up and down the product line; that is to say, it's not just the low-end gadgets that come in color anymore. It's been too long since Apple stopped trying to be cute. If the company offers its next laptop in a variety of colors, it might rediscover some of that uniqueness, that small but crucial emotional connection to the user, which once was its hallmark.
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Think Outside the Rectangle.
Apple's recent legal troubles with Samsung (SSNLF) have shown that committing all your design efforts to a single shape (a rectangle with rounded corners) is a problematic system. But again, Apple should look to its past for inspiration, and this time it should look back to 2002 and the iMac G4.
This machine, unlike the iMac G3 before it, blew the doors off our perception of what an all-in-one desktop computer should look like. A half-volleyball base with a slot-loading optical drive and a flat-panel display on a Luxo-Jr.-esque swiveling arm, the G4 (nicknamed "Sunflower" by the design team, which was evidently a bunch of awesome hippies) had an unbelievable personality. Compare that with today's iMacs, those sleek and sexy sports car computers that have power but no heart.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once said, "Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." My boundless love for The Little Prince aside, I have one small addendum: Apple should be careful that in the pursuit of that perfection, it does not remove the things about its products that caused many to fall in love with them in the first place. I would love to sit at an Apple Expo and — for the first time in years — have no idea what was about to happen on that big screen.