Apple’s obsession with thinness

Originally seen at Techpinions

While recently shopping at Costco, I strolled by the notebook computer aisle displaying all Windows machines, and stopped in my tracks.  I was struck by how sleek and compact some of the new Windows machines had become, particularly the Lenovo X1 Carbon with its matte black carbon enclosure and the Dell XPS 13 with its impressive edge-to-edge display.

Having used MacBooks over the past decade, I’ve paid less attention to the progress of Windows notebooks, generally pleased with MacOS software and tolerating the lack of progress of the Apple hardware: the mediocre keyboards, the loss of useful ports, and the elimination of the iconic MagSafe connector. I had accepted Apple’s messaging that I needed to give up these features for small and light.

What struck me most about these notebooks at Costco were that they still had most of the varied ports and their keyboards were so much better. Yet, they were still lightweight and compact. Compared to the MacBook 12-inch I’ve been using, the keyboards were like day and night. The Lenovo and Dell keyboards both had greater travel, a better click profile and much better response compared to my MacBook. Granted, I may be more sensitive than others, having been part of the team that developed the Stowaway keyboard for the Palm, but Apple’s recent spate of keyboards have been notoriously fragile and mediocre, as I recently experienced.

A few months ago, my keyboard had to be replaced. One of the keys failed to work and I brought my computer to a local Apple store. A technician tried blowing out dust. He explained how the new keyboards are so sensitive, that just one piece of dust or a particle of sand can cause a failure. While in the past the keys could be disassembled, or as a worst case, the keyboards could be replaced, he explained that it’s no longer possible to do so on the new generations of MacBooks and MacBook Pros.

The key could not be fixed, and the computer was sent off for repair. I was surprised to learn that replacing the keyboard required replacing all of the electronics, because they were all one assembly, apparently glued together.  Without my AppleCare, the cost would have been about $700.  That’s $700 for a problem caused by a piece of dust! For reference, a good quality keyboard costs less than $10 to produce.

I checked a couple of teardown sites and confirmed that the keyboards and other components could be replace on the Dell and Lenovo, although not on Microsoft’s Surface computers. But replacing a keyboard or battery on a new MacBook requires replacing a major portion of the computer.

As a former hardware design engineer and director of PowerBooks at Apple in the 90s, I wondered how Apple strayed so far from creating products with good reliability and reparability, inclusion of useful ports, and other features that once caused MacBooks to stand apart from their competition.

I’ve been trying to imagine what went through the engineers’ minds. After all, engineers I’ve worked with take pride in developing reliable products that will provide great consumer satisfaction. What decisions were made along the way that caused intelligent engineers to design these troublesome products?

I’m convinced it must be Apple’s obsession with thinness.  It appears to be an obsession so strong that it discards good design practices to create a design language that impacts reliability and performance. And not only has this focus impacted the MacBooks, but iPhones, as well.

It’s the same obsession that’s led to iPhones with underpowered batteries in order to make the iPhones thinner and thinner.  The results are phones with lower capacity batteries that degrade to an unusable level much sooner than a larger capacity battery. With batteries dropping to about 70% capacity after 300 cycles, they fail to keep the phone running reliably, requiring Apple to slow down the processor or replace the batteries sooner than on other phones.

You’d think by now it should be clear to Apple that they’ve gone too far with thinness, seriously effecting the functionality of their products, increasing repair costs and reducing customer satisfaction. I would hope Apple realizes that these sacrifices are not necessary, and functionality should not suffer for a design statement that few care about or cover with a case that make the product thicker. If Apple doesn’t address this obsession, they are providing a golden opportunity for even diehard Mac users such as myself to consider a Window’s notebook computer.



by Phil Baker