Expecting Perfection From Apple Design

Expecting Perfection From Apple Design

Aluminosilicate glass. CNC-machined steel. A4. IPS panels. Unibody. Retina display. It sounds like jargon plucked from a stuffy science journal. But it’s straight out of Apple marketing.

The iPhone 4 is a zenith for materials discourse in Apple’s online marketing: parts and process. How something is made, the actual process of putting it together and what it’s made out of. They’re justifiably proud of their baby.

The introduction video for the unibody MacBook Pro was an exegesis on the production of a notebook. According to Apple’s implication, other company’s notebooks are made out of multiple parts, so they’re weak. The MacBook Pro is made out of a single piece of aluminium, Jon Ive informs us. It’s CNC-machined. It goes through nine milling operations. The video even shows us how it’s done. A factory worker leisurely examines a unibody frame.

What’s inside the MacBook’s aluminium exoskeleton merits a much smaller chunk of airtime. After all, it’s practically the same slices of silicon any other notebook manufacturer can procure and shove inside their laptops. Intel chips. Nvidia graphics cards. A hard drive. Some RAM. Dell notebooks have this stuff. So do HP, Asus, Lenovo and Acer. All the same inside, all sourced from the same handful of suppliers. This fact is in part why the what and how of Apple’s products became a critical point of distinction. It’s why they’re better.

Before Apple made the Intel switch, a Mac’s guts were actually different from a PC, if not better, since Apple used IBM’s PowerPC chips. (Obviously, Apple phrased it as better. “Massively” better, faster, stronger.) And for a lot of people, different is better enough.

Then suddenly the inside of a Mac looked a whole lot like the inside of a PC.

The A4 chip that powers the iPad and iPhone 4 is a return to difference at the gut level. It’s “custom silicon we designed,” Senior VP of Hardware Bob Mansfield says with a level of earnesty that would make politicians weep. It’s not simply unique to Apple’s product – it’s designed by Apple, in the thing that Jony Ive says “defines our vision, our sense of what’s next”.

The A4 is first chip that Apple has actually talked about in a mobile product – the iPhone, until now, was a black box. But Apple says little about the technical specifications of the A4, beyond the fact it’s clocked at 1GHz in the iPad. The trick is that it’s not all that special, or even Apple born-and-bred, since it’s built using ARM’s Cortex A8 architecture, and even shares its CPU core with the Samsung chip powering Sammy’s Galaxy S Android phone.

The point that I’m leading to is that Apple both generates and is surrounded by a discourse about the way it makes things in a manner that simply doesn’t apply to Dell or HP – a lofty expectation that they themselves have set. Except for rare exceptions like the Adamo, Dell (for instance) doesn’t talk about how they make products, the materials they use or what’s inside, beyond an Intel sticker stamped on the box and a list of numbers and specs running down the side. No one cares. And for the average customer, why should they? It’s good enough. On the other hand, why doesn’t Apple talk about the lineage A4 with the same detail it speaks about aluminium extrusion processes? That silence speaks volumes.

The fevered tone of Apple marketing is why the Foxconn suicide spree was tightly tied to Apple, more so than any other company that pays Foxconn to manufacture its products. Apple actually has a story to deflate. Their wonderful things – wonderful because of how they’re crafted – are made by unhappy people in practically the same factories as tons of other computers. It’s why the iPhone 4 antenna issue leaves so many dumbstruck. “Care”, “precision”, “detail”, “design” are all words repeated at a hypnotic clip in Apple’s marketing.

How did Apple miss a real design mistake on the iPhone 4’s antenna? We’re not trying to be vicious for the sake of it when we’ve noted the flaw in an otherwise class-leading phone. We’re simply asking: If you’re the only company that cares so much about design, don’t underplay one of the few times you’ve made a minor gaffe. Being perfect at customer satisfaction can be magical, too.

Illustration: Nikki Cook