Thoughts on Thinness

In late 2008 I bought a 4th-generation iPod Nano. It was so thin that I found it hard to hold and use. I bought a Griffin case for it that increased the bulk somewhat and gave it some texture. It was only after adding the case that the device felt right.

Almost exactly six years later I bought an iPhone 6. A lot has changed, but my reaction to holding it was curiously identical to its ancestor. It was slippery, hard to get a grip on, somehow insubstantial. After a week or so I went out and bought the standard silicone case and finally the iPhone 6 felt right.

Last week, Mark Gurman of 9to5Mac posted the now well-discussed rumour claiming that Apple is planning to launch a 12” MacBook Air this spring.

So far, many of the podcasters I listen to seem to be in agreement that this is very possibly the real deal. There are a few key talking points:

  • The I/O. Would Apple really release a laptop with only one multipurpose USB-C-type and one 1/8” headphone-type port? Of course they would.
  • The processor. Will it be an ARM chip? Will it be fanless? (Don’t care, these kind of things are far too technical for me to care about.)
  • The keyboard. Will they really put the power button at the top left? Will it be a good typing experience?
  • Thinness.

More than any of the other talking points, thinness might be the best way of discerning Apple’s true priorities and critiquing its vision. Is Apple unhealthily fixated on thinness? Is it solving problems in the wrong order? Is thinness merely the easiest problem to solve out of a number of potential outcomes?

Thinness for thinness’ sake is problematic. The race to the smallest, thinnest laptop has already been won by Apple twice: first with the MacBook Air, and second by taking a slice out of its own market for thin laptops with the iPad. Is anyone really asking for a thinner laptop?

While some commentators have suggested that no one is really asking for better battery life either—“the device lasts all day, you charge it at night”—I don’t think I would really want a 12” MacBook Air and an iPad and an iPhone and an Apple Watch (all pinging each other and syncing data to the cloud constantly) that can’t actually make it through the day and night and part of the next day. What rat’s nest of charging cables and adaptors will I need for all this? How un-Apple is that? Maybe it’s time to simplify, unify, and generally improve the charging experience?

Why is Apple even thinking about thinness when we know this keeps battery life and/or charging experience from improving significantly?

Postscript

As a side note, I actually think that complex iOS 8/Yosemite features like Continuity and Handoff (and the Apple Watch’s features, probably) are chiefly only useful for spreading the misery of short battery life and the tedium of charging amongst a greater number of devices. When they advertise Continuity by explaining you can take a phone call from your laptop while your iPhone is IN THE OTHER ROOM OMG I feel like shouting IT'S IN THE OTHER ROOM BECAUSE I PLUG IT INTO THE WALL WHEN I GET HOME FROM WORK.

I also think this effectively spells the end of the rumours we kept hearing of a larger iPad. Sounds like they were based on patents or specifications for a 12” Retina Display, in other words, the bigger iPad is a laptop.