It’ll truly be the end of an era when Apple Chief Design Officer Jony Ive walks out of the massive sliding glass doors of Apple Park to design things at his new company, LoveFrom.
Ive and his team of close-knit industrial designers have blessed the world with many iconic products, including the iMac, iPod, iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch over the last 20 years.
These are all devices that have changed the world. But in some ways, Ive’s obsession with stripping everything down to its purest form has also been the source of much frustration for users. Instead of products that provide the best form and function, in recent years, Apple products have felt too compromised.
Though many will view Ive’s departure from Apple as a turn for the worse — “The genius of Steve Jobs and Ive will never be matched; Apple is doomed!” — I see his leave as an opportunity for the company to embrace a new chapter of more sensible devices. Devices that are familiar, but better suit the many different kinds of users that have helped grow Apple into one of the most valuable companies in the world.
It’s unlikely Apple without Ive will vomit a dizzying lineup of new devices the same way the company did in the late ’80s to early ’90s under former CEO John Sculley. And I don’t expect Ive’s influence to suddenly disappear overnight.
However, I strongly feel Apple’s industrial designers are at inflection point where they can step out of Ive’s shadow and improve on existing products by breaking with some of the principles he was so unrelenting on.
A decade since the iPhone’s introduction, Apple’s most revolutionary product now faces fierce assault from every direction. The iPhone no longer has one main rival (Samsung), but myriad competition, especially from China (Huawei, Xiaomi, OnePlus, Oppo, etc.)
iPhone sales flatlined as prices became too high, hardware became more than good enough to last beyond two years, and Android phone alternatives have introduced irresistible mobile innovations such as notch- and hole-free displays, in-display fingerprint readers, and cameras capable of shooting ultra-wide photos and stunning night shots.
In comparison, the iPhone — as fantastic as the iPhone XR and XS/XS Max are — feel like they’re falling behind. This year’s new iPhones are expected to keep the same designs but add an ultra-wide camera inside of a big protruding bump.
New software and services, faster performance, and improved cameras are all great features, but consumers want more visible change for the iPhone.
Under Ive, the iPhone went on a diet until it became arguably too thin with the iPhone 6, which culminated in bendgate. Slowly, but surely, the iPhone has thickened with each new model going from the iPhone 6’s 6.9mm profile to 8.3mm on the iPhone XR.
I can’t speak for everyone, but anecdotally, I see more people with iPhone XRs than iPhone XS or XS Max. Not to mention almost everyone puts their iPhones in cases or carries battery packs or cases. This suggests to me people might not mind a thicker phone if the tradeoff’s for, say, a bigger battery or a camera that doesn’t jut out. It would be smart for Apple’s industrial team to take these use cases into consideration for any future iPhones.
“Consumers want more visible change for the iPhone.”
We’ve been hearing for years that the iPhone might switch to USB-C. It hasn’t happened under Ive’s watch. USB-C would mean one less proprietary cable to carry around. While it seems unlikely Apple would sever the healthy revenue it collects from third-party companies that license its Lightning tech, a thicker iPhone — even a millimeter or two — would allow physical room for USB-C to fit. USB-C would also endow the iPhone with iPad Pro-like functionality, like the ability to connect to monitors and USB-C flash drives.
A new smaller iPhone with a notch-free display and in-display Touch ID fingerprint reader could also compete with Android phones with the same features. Analyst Ming-Chi Kuo claims a 5.4-inch iPhone is reportedly slated for 2020 and a Credit Suisse analyst says Apple’s working on an in-display fingerprint reader, despite insisting Face ID is the better and more natural biometric system for iPhones.
I’d also love a design refresh that mirrors the iPad Pro’s straight edges and throws it back to the boxier iPhone 5/5S/SE days.
Future MacBooks and iMacs
I’ve outlined before what the death of the 12-inch MacBook could mean for future Apple laptops. Namely, this is Apple’s chance to kill its almost controversial “butterfly keyboard” and switch back to scissor-style keys with more travel. Similarly, Apple can dump the Touch Bar and bring back the row of function keys while still keeping Touch ID inside of the power button like on the MacBook Air.
Like the iPhone, I wouldn’t mind if Apple made the MacBook Air and Pro marginally thicker and heavier to add in a touchscreen (gorilla arm is such a myth), higher-resolution webcam with Face ID, a memory card slot, and MagSafe. These features would put MacBooks more on par with Windows-powered alternatives such as the excellent Surface Laptop 2 and Google Pixelbook.
And while Apple’s at it making MacBooks a few hairs thicker, why not make internal components like the storage, RAM, and battery user-replaceable again? Soldering the SSD and RAM is good for making thin machines, but terrible for upgrades, repairs, and adds to e-waste.
iMacs could also use a post-Ive revamp beyond a space gray colorway; the current design’s gone virtually unchanged since 2012. As a desktop — a computer that doesn’t move around much (if ever) — Apple has a lot more room to be bolder.
Who is the iMac for? What do people want it to do that it can’t? I imagine creatives would love an iMac that borrows from Microsoft’s Surface Studio 2 and has drafting table-like capabilities. A touchscreen with multi-touch and Apple Pencil support using a tilting stand would be neat.
Design-wise, I’d love a Retina display that reaches closer to the edges with slimmer bezels like on the upcoming Pro Display XDR and does away with the iMac’s “chin.”
Face ID login, a new Magic Mouse that corrects this horrendous can’t-use-while-charging design, and user-swappable storage and RAM, or even a screen that rotates vertically like the Pro Display XDR would reimagine the iMac as a formidable modern all-in-one computer.
Apple Watch, Apple TV, HomePod, and beyond
There’s not much that needs improving for the Apple Watch. A camera underneath the display like the one Oppo showed off in a phone for FaceTime calls would be killer.
The Apple TV could become the game console it’s always been meant to be with its own Apple-designed gamepad; it makes even more sense with the launch of Apple Arcade this fall. The Apple TV’s Siri Remote could also use tweaking — small changes so that it’s easier to know which side is up or down.
It’s hard to say how Apple could turn around the HomePod’s misfortunes. Maybe a smaller and cheaper version or one with a screen like the Google Nest Hub.
The sky really is the limit for the industrial design team Ive leaves behind. I’m not saying they should run wild and pull a Samsung with future iPhones or MacBooks that use unproven technologies like foldable screens or even release the rumored AR glasses. But bumping utility — real practical needs — higher up on the priority list could help ring in a new Apple era that’s less tone deaf.