is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
Not long after its announcement last week, Kyle Wiens of iFixIt disassembled one of Apple’s new Retina MacBook Pros and wrote at Wired.com that “the display is fused to the glass, which means replacing the LCD requires buying an expensive display assembly. The RAM is now soldered to the logic board — making future memory upgrades impossible. And the battery is glued to the case.” His conclusion was that it’s “the least repairable laptop we’ve ever taken apart.”
This has sparked some debate on both the customer friendliness and environmental responsibility of this kind of manufacturing, There’s no denying that the Retina MacBook Pro is clearly not built for user-serviceable repair or upgrade. Obviously, it follows the same path that Apple has taken with its products over the past decade-plus; from the iPod to the iPhone to the MacBook Air to the iPad, Apple hardware has become less and less accessible over time.
Economics v. Legacy
It would be pretty hard to make a reasonable business-based argument that Apple should retreat from this approach, though. The common wisdom is that few customers ever repair or upgrade their laptops themselves (or even turn to third-party services for repairs or upgrades); following this logic, you could say that these products are more efficient — and arguably more environmentally friendly — production designs than the highly-customizable machines that used to be the norm. Even if it weren’t true, Apple has pretty convincingly demonstrated that consumers do not object to these kinds of devices. That’s putting it mildly.
Move beyond the immediate economic question, though, and you’ll uncover what I think is one of the biggest shortcomings of Apple’s recent design legacy: this stuff just isn’t made to last. Several times a year, Apple rolls out hardware products that are, in terms of pure design smarts and innovation, leagues beyond what their competitors are capable of. Their machines are more beautiful, better built and, admittedly, longer-lasting than just about any other high tech hardware out there. But if the durability of, say, a Dell laptop is two or three years, and if Apple’s hardware improves on that two or even three times, it’s still not doing that much better than the mean. What would be really impressive is an iPod or iPhone that lasts for decades.
This is the age we’re in now, though. Even before Steve Jobs began his second stint at Apple, it was already true that most technology hardware was becoming cheaper to discard than to repair or upgrade. But now, thanks in part to Apple’s influence and success, we’ve internalized that way of thinking about products so well that we don’t really want hardware that’s capable of lasting more than two or three years. By the time a laptop reaches its third birthday, most of us start thinking about its replacement.
To me, the most disappointing thing about this is that, as beautiful as objects in this mode can be, over time they inevitably begin to look worse than they did on the day they were purchased. Some objects look better when you use them more, but not Apple stuff. Every scratch, scuff, ding and crack serves to alienate us a little bit further from the hardware we own, and to make us yearn a bit more for the newer, more pristine hardware we have yet to buy. (I wrote about this concept back in 2007.) That’s a great business strategy but it’s not a great design legacy, to say nothing of its sustainability. Apple gets a lot of kudos for how beautiful its hardware looks today, but in the long run, it may be judged as much for how ephemeral it is too.
Follow-up, 20 June 2012
Be sure to read the follow-up post to this one that I wrote to elaborate on my argument.+