Rectangle Fatigue: Apple & The Curse Of Great Design

Rectangle Fatigue: Apple & The Curse Of Great Design
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Tomas Haffenden (pictured below) is a futurist at VERSA. In this guest post, he says it’s hard not to look enviously at Apple’s product line-up and marvel at numerous examples of category-defining industrial design. However, when you lead the pack and create a near-perfect first-generation device, where do you go next?

It is hard not to look enviously at Apple’s product lineup and marvel at numerous examples of category-defining industrial design. However, when you lead the pack and create a near-perfect first-generation device, where do you go next?

With last week’s release of the somewhat familiar-looking ‘new’ iPhone 12 to lukewarm responses, are even the most die-hard Apple fan-boys and girls starting to suffer from rectangle fatigue?

Right off the bat, it’s important to note how much I love Apple. We go way back to 2001 with the iPod Classic and I’ve owned every iteration of the iPhone from its inception in 2007. However, as I hold my shiny new iPhone 12 Pro Max, it’s getting harder and harder to answer the question “So why is this one better?”

Looking back at the history of the iPhone, it’s easy to identify three pervasive themes that defined ‘improvement’ – namely; faster, thinner and more capable. These are aspirations I’m sure we can all relate to, but there are genuine limits which, as we shall see, are becoming ever more noticeable.

Faster, faster, faster….

Technology has always been obsessed with speed, with Moore’s Law correctly predicting a doubling of processor power every two years. So it is not surprising that it was exciting to see what improvements Apple had managed to squeeze into each new iPhone.

Rapid improvements in both processor power and telecommunication networks meant that by the iPhone 3GS, Apple was able to double the speed from the previous device. This doubling in speed was a noticeable and exciting shift towards a magic number; 13ms.

13ms refers to the speed limit of real-time human perception. The upshot of this is that anything faster than 13ms is rendered unperceivable to the humble human brain. This means that we are racing towards a time where we will be literally incapable of noticing a reduction in speed.

Increasing the speed and capability of the processor will most certainly feature in every new device but without the surplice and delight of noticing the difference the hefty price tag is going to be more of a challenge to justify.

The iPhone 12 is an excellent example of this. Like its predecessors, it has benefited from a technical leap in telecoms and “COVID spreader 5G*.” As we increasingly stream our content, we are limited by bandwidth, but 5G has arrived capable of facilitating 4K content streams on-the-go. Which brings us to another human limitation; Visual acuity.

Apple’s retina display has always been breathtakingly clear and detailed, but, as with speed, we are now approaching the limits of our perception. It has been suggested that 8K represents a good approximation of this visual limit and iPhone 12’s OLED display is already at 4K.

Slightly thinner rectangles…

When dealing with technology, speed and size are often linked together with a general understanding that smaller and faster equals better. This absolutely holds true for processors, but that was only one element of the iPhone design.

The desirability of the original iPhone design was that it sat neatly in the palm of your hand and made everything accessible with the swipe of a thumb. It was close to ergonomically perfect**.

However, this ‘perfection’ has come at a cost. Although Jony Ive will be furious at me for saying this, it is hard not to look at the historical iPhone lineup and see a series of marginally different rectangles. And that is the trouble with getting the physical design so right the first time around.

You can make them slightly thinner (iPhone 6), you can change curved edges to flat (iPhone 4), then curve them again (iPhone 6 to 11) and then back to flat (iPhone 12). Sooner or later you realise that there is only so much you can do with a rectangle.

Like it or not, part of the appeal of the iPhone has always been as a status symbol, how are strangers going to know I’m rich and cool if my shiny new phone looks the same as everybody else’s? 

Capable of so much more…

If distinctness of design and the curse of slightly thinner rectangles was not enough, the UPS of being more capable is also starting to present challenges for Apple. The more open-source approach to software development of Android has meant that there is now little to nothing that we can do better.

This is in stark constraint to the initial iPhone that boasted functionality that other phone companies at the time could only dream of. Who’d have thought being first to market was such a powerful thing?***

In terms of functional capabilities, Apple has doubled down on hardware and is now in the hands of app developers to provide the killer features that underpin its latest rectangle.

Next steps…

With every new iPhone, Apple gets closer to the event horizon of perceivable change and in doing so shine a bright light on a marketing strategy focused on faster, thinner and more capable devices.

This developing weakness in Apple’s positioning has not gone unnoticed by others in the market, who have shifted accordingly in an attempt to carve away some market share. Most notably Motorola and Samsung have both released…or should that be re-released?…flip-phones**** that are (drumroll please) square! That is until you open them, and they become rectangles again. It would seem that there is no way to escape the power of the rectangle.

Consumer desire for newness both in terms of form and function is going to place increasing pressure on designers as we approach the limitations of human perception. The result will be a more significant role for marketers, who will need to find insights and design campaigns that appeal to consumers on a deeper level.

For now Apple still controls the rectangle market and has at least a couple more years of faster, thinner and more capable devices left in the bank. But how long before they start to notice the financial implications of rectangle-fatigue only time will tell….unless of course that time is less than 13ms.

*Obviously joking….we all know COVID was something to do with a pangolin.

**Provided you owned a near average man sized hand.

***Loads of people…maybe even most people.

****Clamshell-phones, foldable-phones.

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Apple Tomas Haffenden VERSA

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