Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow

The iPhone 5 caught some flak for being “too light.” Similarly, some consider the latest revision of the iMac to be “too thin.” You’ll find some incredulity in the articles that address this topic. It’s a little silly, right? After all, what’s the alternative? Thicker and heavier? Stagnation? But these complaints are not entirely unreasonable.

When it comes to electronics, density is often a signal of quality. A product that feels like an empty metal box seems cheap. A tiny item with surprising heft seems expensive. For handheld items, higher density can also help produce stronger, more concentrated pressure on the hand. This helps to more clearly delineate the sensations of a securely held item and an item that’s about to slip out of the hand. I’ve heard this complaint about the iPhone 5 many times: “It’s so light, I’m afraid I’m going to drop it!”

No one is holding an iMac while using it, so there’s no fear of dropping it. But if it’s not being held, why the rush to slim down? Dissatisfaction with the ever-slimming iMac is exacerbated by the removal of the optical drive in the latest revision. In all likelihood, that optical drive was going away regardless of the thickness of the iMac’s edge. (Apple’s been steadily dropping optical drives from the Mac line for years.) Still, some people can’t help but infer a cause and effect relationship, blaming Apple’s seemingly pointless drive for thinness for the loss of the slot for the spinning shiny things.

In the past, I’ve voiced my own complaints about the edge of the latest iMac and how the iPhone 5 feels in the hand. But though I might disagree with the timing and details of these changes, I fully support the broader long-term trend towards lighter, thinner hardware. Here’s why.

In technology, things that can be measured appear to exist on a smooth continuum: large to small, slow to fast. But the experiences provided by these measurable quantities often have sharp discontinuities.

Consider touch-screen user interfaces. They’ve existed for decades, but it wasn’t until the iPhone arrived that they entered widespread usage. Yes, there are many non-tech factors that contributed to this, but the responsiveness of the iPhone’s interface was an essential factor. With the iPhone, touch interfaces finally crossed the threshold from frustrating to joyful.

I’m not sure where the threshold is, or even what quantities it applies to (e.g., frames-per-second of animation, input lag, finger pressure), but it’s definitely there. It’s not a steady ramp from unacceptable to acceptable. It’s a perceived discontinuity—a leap.

Most measurable qualities of tech products have experiential discontinuities like this. In fact, there are usually multiple discontinuities. It’s human nature to think that we’re at the pinnacle of useful achievement, but it’s never actually true. Watch what happens to the experience of using a touch-screen when we go in search of the next discontinuity—what the Microsoft researcher in this video calls “a perceptual cliff."

This phenomenon is not limited to performance measurements. It extends to every aspect of a product, including size, weight, and even shape. Let’s reconsider the iPhone. The change in thickness and weight between the iPhone 4S and the iPhone 5 was very small. Using an iPhone 5 does not feel dramatically different than using a 4S. Clearly, the iPhone 5 has not yet reached the next perceptual cliff—but it’s out there.

Consider a distant-future iPhone roughly the same width and height as the iPhone 5, but as thin and as durable as a credit card. Accidentally drop such a phone and it’d flutter harmlessly to the ground. Now maybe this would be a terrible design—the edges might dig into your hand, and it might be even less secure-feeling when held—but it’d clearly change the equation when it comes to fear of dropping your iPhone (not to mention where and how to carry it, and so on).

Don’t get distracted by the details. I’m not arguing for or against a particular design. My point is that it’s important to keep making progress towards the next discontinuity, wherever it may be.

Apple has its compass trained on “thinner and lighter,” a direction that’s proven fruitful in the past. But as much as we’d all like to jump right to the next big win, you can’t just skip to the end. The original iPhone was never going to be followed by the credit-card-thin iPhone—again, ignoring whether this is actually a good idea; stay with me! Instead, it was followed by the 3G (thicker in the middle, but thinner-feeling on the edge), then the 4 (thinner overall), then the 5 (thinner still), and so on.

The same goes for the iMac, with the same caveats about the direction and endpoint. How does the iMac change as a product when it’s as thin as an iPad, or a cafeteria tray, or a credit card? Does it even need to exist at that point? Maybe the distant-future iMac is “just a big iPad.” Or maybe some new i/o device makes all of this moot.

Mistakes will be made in the march towards the future. But the worst possible mistake is neglecting to do the work required to get there because you think we’ve already arrived. There is no destination; there is only the journey. Pick a direction or get out of the way.