It’s a standard Apple play to shave a few atoms off the waists of its gadgets come refresh time — allowing the company’s marketing department to crow about thinner flagships that also pack more power and boast better screens, or both.
If rumors about a next generation model of the MacBook Air are to be believed, for instance, Apple is planning to slice the laptop’s thickness roughly in half, while boosting its display size from 11 inches to 12, mostly by reducing the bezel, so its overall footprint hardly grows at all.
But this party trick of packing more into less requires something to give. Likely space for certain physical ports, in the case of the rumored skeletal MacBook Air. While, for current iPhone flagships, the 6.9mm thick (thin) iPhone 6 and the 7.1mm iPhone 6 Plus, a degree of form-factor integrity has clearly been lost in the quest to achieve size 0 smartphones — hence the bendgate saga.
iPhones that weren’t quite so thin would probably have stood up a little more robustly when people stuck them in their back pockets and sat on them for hours. But those aren’t the iPhones Apple made.
Still bendgate is small beer compared to the most complained about compromise of slimmer gadgets: battery life. Limiting physical size negatively constrains battery capacity, since the space for housing cells is probably shrinking too. It’s certainly not being allowed to balloon, year on year.
Even though Apple typically optimizes hardware and software to offer the same battery life — or sometimes a slight improvement — in refreshed devices it does not offer headline-grabbing, orders of magnitude improvements. Such leaps are reserved for its new chipset or a better display or the aforementioned thinner form factor.
Partly this is because improvements to battery technology have been more incremental than other tech developments. But it’s also a measure of the constraints Apple’s external design demands place on the innards of i-Devices. With increasingly slender gadgets, something has to give — and that something is substantial improvements in battery life.
If Apple was content with a philosophy of ‘thin enough’ it could allow a little more space inside its gadgets, year on year, to make room for bigger batteries — to address what remains a very mainstream gripe: devices that give out before their users do.
Getting a day’s mixed use from a smartphone remains the expected standard. More careful use can eke out a little more life. Heavier use will require you to be packing a spare battery or charger. So the irony is that the thinnest, most apparently aspirational gadgets end up being tethered to a wall or attached to an auxiliary battery pack to keep them juiced up.
Anyone who grew up in an earlier technology era, when home computers typically demanded a substantial chunk of your desk space, and ‘portability’ meant lugging around a dead-weight with a handle attached, understands Apple’s imperative to slim down the kit.
But there comes a point where size, surely, no longer matters. Where a phone or a laptop or a computer is now thin enough for even the most fashion conscious gadget owner. And yet still Apple thins.
Its consistency here makes slimming a clear strategy. But what’s the logic of Apple’s well-crafted thinness?
Building the thinnest devices, or at least continually pushing in that direction and championing thinness, gives Apple’s competitors very little room for maneuver with their own hardware designs. It allows Apple to make the most of its expertise in engineering both hardware and software together, working within its own ever tightening margins — and forcing its rivals to do the same. Or fail trying.
Competing gadgets that fail to achieve such slender proportions are inevitably compared unfavorably with i-Devices on size and weight. That’s Apple owning the slender top of the market.
On the flip side Apple arguably has to keep raising the bar — or rather shaving the bar — for what constitutes high end luxury in order to stay ahead of the i-Clones. So this is both a race and a chase.
Another factor to consider is that for smartphones and tablets, and even for laptops, hardware differentiation is all but dead. Computing devices are mostly screen now. Or screen plus keyboard. There are so few physical ingredients in the established recipe that it’s all but impossible to blend a distinct flavor. Especially with Apple owning minimalism.
So less really can be more when it comes to computing hardware design. A more physically differentiated design risks being perceived as cluttered or clumsy or ugly or distracting vs the minimalist high end. Again, Apple gets to sit pretty by owning the aesthetic top of the market — which also means it needs to keep building thinner to play by its own reductive rules.
Making devices thinner is also one of the few ways left to differentiate hardware in a very bland space that’s mostly done away with other physical quirks. Color is another option, and one which Apple plays with from time to time, but typically for non-flagship devices (like iPods or the iPhone 5c) or for its own brand accessories.
It keeps its truly high end devices relatively color-free, with a focus on minimalist monochromes and metallics. And so Apple needs to make its devices thinner, year on year, to achieve a design splash.
Another characteristic of thinner devices is how they naturally reduce interaction choice for the user — with fewer physical entry points into these devices. They are shiny shells encouraging greater reliance on the walled garden ecosystem that created them. Physical ports and slots are pared back to a bare minimum. Storage is probably not user-expansible. Batteries aren’t replaceable.
All of which limits what users can do vis-a-vis the iOS ecosystem, and makes their behaviour more predictable and controllable. That in turn allows Apple to construct a more accessible environment, with fewer available choices supporting a simpler, more mainstream-friendly interface.
If the user can’t do things like expand storage themselves, or buy a replacement battery, they can be more easily nudged by Apple to pay for cloud storage or encouraged to upgrade to a new i-Device. It’s all about funneling users along the Cupertino-controlled pipe.
These constraints help with ecosystem lock-in too. The more invested the user becomes in the iOS ecosystem and Apple’s iCloud, the more locked in to its hardware they are — with the cumulative build up of associated digital content working to dissuade them from switching to another platform.
Slender, reductive devices are therefore a visual expression of the ecosystem lock in which give Apple’s business its staying power.
Building thinner hardware also means the most perishable piece of technology inside i-Devices — the battery — is locked away inside a seamless shell. With no user access, the lifespan of the mobile device become inextricably (literally) linked to the overall lifespan of the battery.
You could even argue that constrained battery capacity helps to encourage user charging patterns that wear a battery out more quickly. Smartphone users typically charge their devices every night, since battery life is limited, and if they are using the phone a lot in the day might well discharge the device entirely. Which is not necessarily a great way to treat lithium-ion cells if you want them to last…
Either way, the bottom line is Apple makes money when device users upgrade, and given its business involves selling expensive devices that are crafted from premium materials the most common reason for an upgrade — certainly for Apple’s mobile devices — is a worn out battery. Hardware thinness thus helps Apple generate and regulate recurring revenue.
And now for Apple’s next trick…
So what’s the end game? Can Apple keep making its i-Devices thinner and thinner? Obviously it would hit some atomic limits eventually, but it still has a few millimeters left for sacrificing to the gods of thinness before it gets to that point — which, at its typically yearly refresh cycle — should keep the strategy ticking over in the short term.
In the meanwhile Apple is building a new type of wearable device, the Apple Watch, due to arrive this March. This is new territory for Apple, with the smartwatch being auxiliary to the core computing devices in its portfolio. So it opens up the possibility of a little strategic expansion of its hardware philosophy.
The Apple Watch is a supplementary device that offers a degree of function and design flare overspill, while allowing Apple to maintain the slender form-factors of the master iOS devices it is intended to be used with.
It is also supplementary in the sense that it aims to lift extra dollars out of the wallets of existing iOS users. It is of course another iOS lock-in incentive. And one which seeks to expand the reach and knowledge of the ecosystem, by attaching an even more personal data point to users. And while wearables as a consumer electronics category have, thus far, been pretty uninspiring Apple will be aiming to break the mould — as it has a history of doing so.
Apple also has a history of being comfortable cannibalizing its own business — building the iPhone to absorb the iPod’s function, for instance. And more recently making a phablet-sized iPhone, despite plenty of overlap with its smaller iPads. Where the Apple Watch will fit in on this function overlap spectrum is not clear at this point. That will depend on sales and how unique (or otherwise) the app experiences are vs iPhone/iPad. But it seems likely that some cannibalization is coming.
Either way, that’s fine for Apple’s hardware business, given the watch uses Bluetooth connectivity — requiring it to link to an iPhone to function. Apple’s main concern here will be ensuring the Watch offers new utility to wearers to justify that second purchase.
Part of the utility of the Apple Watch is likely to be the ability to check notifications without needing to dip into a bag or pocket to do so. Perhaps even without needing to view a screen at all (e.g. haptic feedback informing the watch wearer to turn as they walk). So not needing to check an iPhone quite so much. Or not as much as you otherwise would.
Depending on how well Apple manages the Bluetooth link with the iPhone, the Apple Watch could then effectively function as a wearable spare battery pack for iPhone users — if it ends up re-routing enough usage away from the primary mobile device to an auxiliary wearable.
If that’s the case, Apple’s 2015 party trick could be more slender iPhones with battery life that appears improved — thanks to a portion of mobile usage being re-routed to the Apple Watch — while simultaneously making more money from its user-base.
Quite the sleight of hand, if Apple can pull it off.