Many of us have heard this before, but it bears repeating because many still have not: great design is about making choices. Put another way: to the chagrin of Steve Ballmer and his periodic and preposterous assertion that design can involve “no compromises,” the ability to compromise, and well, is a core asset of great designers and engineers.
Design is not a haphazard journey to find and absorb every new and mildly interesting feature, trend, or trick. Great design is the relentless pursuit of creating a cohesive, contemporary product, be it a painting, a building, or a smartphone. To design great consumer electronics, companies must choose whether to incorporate this feature or that, usually at the expense of size, weight, battery life, materials, and other factors that matter. You can’t change one without affecting one or more of the others.
Apple as a company has built a reputation for great design, but it’s premature to label the iPhone 5 and iOS 6 as such. Though iOS 6 has been in developer beta for months, the majority of us have yet to so much as see or touch an iPhone 5, and those who have only did so for a few minutes after Apple’s event. At best, a small handful of the press are playing with review units as you read this. Even so, it’s only been a couple days.
On the flip side of that coin, it is also premature to label the iPhone 5 and iOS 6 as bad design or, to muster the supposed pinnacles of our journalistic times, “boring.” Again, no one’s spent real time in the wild with this stuff, but more importantly, in the conversation of design, too narrow of a focus is being applied.
One of the central arguments for the iPhone 5’s supposed inability to blow off the door for some people is its lack of a couple features, specifically NFC and wireless charging. But few appear to have investigated why Apple made the decisions to exclude those features. I somehow doubt Apple’s product managers haven’t heard of them or simply forgot to bring them up at the right meeting.
There are reasons for why Apple made these compromises, and some website got Phil Schiller, Apple’s Senior VP of worldwide marketing, to offer some insight.
When asked why NFC was excluded, Schiller answered simply:
It’s not clear that NFC is the solution to any current problem. Passbook does the kinds of things customers need today.
With just two short sentences, Schiller both challenged NFC’s existence and offered Apple’s unique response to the actual problem NFC is designed to solve. If you need a primer on what NFC is and the features it can theoretically enable, Engadget wrote a great NFC primer last year. In short, once you open the proper app for the task at hand, NFC makes it really easy to then move your device very close to another NFC-friendly device to share media, unlock doors, and use affiliate and credit cards to pay in stores.
The compromise with NFC, however, is that it’s a hardware solution. Existing phones that don’t have it can’t get it, and new phones have to have their designs altered in various ways to fit the new hardware. Plus, every single thing in the real world we want to endow with NFC—vending machines, door locks, retail checkout counters, the list goes on—has to be replaced; it’s no small task. While there are removable, NFC-enabled SIM and MicroSD cards for some devices, their effectiveness is reportedly hit and miss since they end up buried out of general reach most of the time.
Apple’s Passbook, on the other hand, is a software solution to the same problems NFC is designed to solve. This means Apple doesn’t have to redesign around new hardware, so the iPhone 5 maintains the company’s design goal of being as thin and light as possible. Plus, because iOS 6 and Passbook are supported across four generations of iPhones—the 3GS, 4, 4S, and 5—Apple can offers a convenient new mobile payment and ticketing tool to tens of millions of customers literally overnight. No one needs to buy a new phone, no one needs to learn a goofy new initialism, and retailers don’t need to spend a not-insignificant amount of money upgrading to NFC-compatible hardware.
On the topic of wireless charging, Schiller again offers a simple comment that explains why Apple chose to avoid incorporating that design:
Having to create another device you have to plug into the wall is actually, for most situations, more complicated.
Complexity. A handful of other phones and third-party accessories have tried wireless charging and it’s never really taken off. In general, wireless charging has so far been quite slow, but more importantly, it requires extra hardware built into or otherwise attached to the phone, as well as yet more new hardware external of the phone to provide the charging apparatus. It’s not like you plug some tiny box into the nearest AC outlet and electricity magically passes 10 feet across the room to your phone sitting on a table.
Palm was the first (mainstream?) company to try it with the Prē Touchstone. You had to swap out a different back panel on the phone and buy a bulky stand (an extra purchase), and we all know how that ended up. Now Nokia is trying it with its new will-ship-sooner-or-later Lumia line, where the phone’s half of the charging system is built into the device, but now instead of a stand like the Touchstone, it’s a pillow.
Whether charging your device at home or traveling, you already have to have some sort of a cable and AC adapter. But Apple’s argument against wireless charging is that you would then have to add yet another extra thing, and no small thing, mind you, in order to sustain the system. Now you’re not just compromising, you’re adding complexity—two C-words that Apple does not consider lightly.
Considering the constraints of wired charging and the pursuit of a thin and light design, Apple instead chose to dramatically redesign its connecting adapter. Again, it adds some immediate complexity for some people who will need to buy adapters or whole new accessories. But looking down the long road of the future where wireless charging just isn’t realistic, the new connector is much smaller and its symmetrical design makes it far easier to use.
Apple clearly did compromise in the iPhone 5 when it comes to one of the device’s core components: the display. Since the original it’s been a 3.5-inch diagonal display, changing only in other factors like pixel density and manufacturing process to nudge those pixels closer and closer to your finger.
Maintaining that size reduced complexity for Apple, developers, and end users. It made Apple’s manufacturing plans and processes easier, gave developers more time (and therefore money) to dream up wonderful new apps instead of waste time (and therefore money) adjusting for different resolutions and layouts, and makes the shopping process far easier on users. Since day one, Apple also professed that the 3.5-inch size allowed the iPhone to stay small and fit well in most people’s hands so they could use all of the phone’s screen with just one of those said hands.
But after watching the vast majority of its competition adopt 4.0-inch and larger displays over the years, ushering that size through the trendy phase into commonplace, Apple decided that it was time to change. Change often requires complexity, no matter how minimal it may be.
As for adding an entirely new display size and resolution to its iPhone lineup, the iPhone 5 will bring its fair share of complexity, though likely short-lived. This is the first time Apple will sell two phones with significantly different display sizes, and every existing iPhone app in the store will need an update to take full advantage of the new layout (plus: how many abandoned apps will simply never be updated, yet still sit in the store for customers to stumble across?). For some apps, the update may not be very difficult. For others, perhaps many, it could take serious effort to redesign the entire interface, which takes time and, therefore, money.
However, it’s a safe bet Apple won’t rock the boat like this again for some time. Once apps are updated to support the iPhone 5’s display, we’re probably good to go for at least a couple more years, perhaps more. After all, smartphones can only get so large before they spill over into tablet territory and out of the typical pants pocket.
Wireless charging has already failed to take off at least once—twice if you count all the third parties who have offered it the last few years as an add-on to the iPhone and other devices. I wager the core implementation of wireless charging would need meaningful change before Apple bothers to seriously consider it. Perhaps something like a small box you plug into AC that sends electricity through the air to your phone’s battery, no pillows or stands required.
NFC has fared slightly better. Unlike wireless charging, it’s seen a little adoption not just in a few competing device, but by a few actual retailers. Engadget and others have reported modest success for NFC in a countries, most notably Japan, and I know Macy’s in Chicago added Google Wallet NFC pads to its checkout counters not long ago. I’ll be damned if I’ve seen anyone use them while people watching, though, and none of the employees I’ve asked—people who work there day in and out—can say they’ve seen it.
On the other hand, iOS 6 arrives next week for tens of millions of existing iPhone owners, not to mention all the iPhone 5 buyers. New iOS releases typically enjoy fast adoption, and in light of the circumstances, there’s a good chance retailers—many of which already have scanning equipment that can read a bar code off the iPhone’s display—will be watching.
Apple wound up being wrong about larger display sizes, but will it be wrong about wireless charging and NFC? As much as it pains me as a writer to not edit out this next phrase, time will tell. But Apple has made clear, deliberate choices in the way the iPhone can respond to customer demands and solve contemporary problems.
Instead of carelessly adding features, bulk, and complexity, Apple has the strength to say no and follow a vision. That’s design, and we will soon see if Apple’s vision for the iPhone 5 and iOS 6 resulted in great design.