Jony Ive Is A Better Industrial Designer Than You

A n acquaintance of mine recently lamented on Facebook the impending loss of the Macbook’s physical escape button. He is a software developer and for him, the loss of the escape key translates to difficulty toggling input modes when using Vim. His complaint is a real one. Industrial designers alienate existing users – who are until that moment sufficiently satisfied with the product – when they alter or remove features.
In this particular case, the industrial designers at Apple have elected to replace the physical escape and function keys with an OLED touch bar with dynamic input capability. This design decision is merely the latest in Apple’s long history of significant product deviations:
  • iMac G3 (1998): no eject button.
  • Apple Pro Mouse (2000): no scroll wheel; no right-click.
  • MacBook Air (2008): no optical drive.
  • Generation 2 MacBook Pro (2008 onward): no Blu-ray drive.
  • iPhone (2007 onward): minimal haptic feedback; no MiniSD card slot; no NFC capability.
  • iPhone 7 (2016): no audio jack.

Public Outcry

Consumers and technology journalists noisily claim that any product lacking these “obvious” features are utterly crippled, doomed to inevitable failure and user flight. Or worse, they state with proud cynicism that anyone purchasing these products must be mindless consumers lacking any sense of personal agency.
And yet, despite this public outcry from self-styled “experts”, Apple products show no sign of losing popularity. On the contrary: whereas the largest PC manufacturers have in recent years contended with the decline of desktop and laptop computing, Apple has gained market share. In any given year, iOS remains the operating system installed on anywhere from 10-25% of smartphones. Some critics attribute this to Apple’s integrated system (or “walled garden”) of services which they claim box consumers into using only Apple products. However, as someone who has owned multiple Android (Samsung Note, Motorola Moto X) and iOS (iPhone 3, 3G, 4, SE) phones, I am not certain it is any easier to exit the Google ecosystem of services – and even taken at face value it does not seem to account for the overwhelming success of Apple.

Why would anyone want emojis on their keyboard?
– Old Man on Facebook

So – what then is the motive for Apple in removing apparently essential features from their products? It seems to invite unnecessary public controversy and loud annulments of brand loyalty. Is it a simple case of Apple’s industrial designers genuinely attempting to address user needs? I believe this is actually the case. Conspiracy theories suggesting that Apple desires dictatorial control over its users inadequately explain the loss of features like the optical drive. By contrast, the context of: 1) increasingly cheap and popular flash storage, 2) consumer adoption of cloud technologies, and 3) a greater focus on device portability provides a satisfying explanation for the feature deprecation.
More recently, the headphone jack removal on the iPhone 7 can also be considered in terms of industrial designers making authentic attempts to address user needs. At face value, the removal of the headphone jack as a means for advancing wireless technology is a difficult pill to swallow for many smartphone users. As I considered this design choice over the last few weeks, I found myself increasingly aware of the inherent inconvenience of wired headphones. Without fail, every time my earbuds snagged on a piece of equipment at the gym, or worked its way into a knotted mess in my backpack, or frayed further at the wire-plug point of connection, I began to take notice. Truly, would it not be more convenient to use wireless earpieces with inductive charging technology? In the case of the new Macbook Pro, are adaptive keyboard buttons not more useful to a vast majority of users than a permanently occupied escape key? Is the difficulty in mapping escape functionality to another key or to one of the non-haptic keys so onerous as to invalidate the concept of adaptive keyboard buttons?
Personal opinions aside, it is absolutely true that these and other changes do alienate some percent of current device users. The salient question isn’t whether or not there exists some user getting the short end of the stick. What designers, technologists, and smart consumers should be asking is whether or not these feature removals make sense in the context of current and emerging technologies – and who exactly stands to profit from the changes.
Why did Apple so callously remove the top row of physical keys from the MacBook Pro? Who could possibly benefit from this feature? Who : “[…] want[s] emojis on their keyboard”? Apparently 92% of the online population.