The iPhone 5: The best, for the most, for the least

This is the final part of my trilogy of iPhone 5 design reviews. Yes, I realize this has gotten way out of hand. I’m sorry.

iphone 5 white front zoom The iPhone 5: The best, for the most, for the least

Charles and Ray Eames, famous mid-century designers, had a motto: “The best, for the most, for the least.”

How do you design the best possible thing? For everyone? At the cheapest cost? It sounds impossible, but that’s not what they were aiming for.

You start by designing for the most. That doesn’t mean literally everyone, it means most everyone. Still a tall task, but achievable by having the willingness to make tough decisions about what is essential and what is just nice to have.

Some people want a 5-inch screen, or a 3D camera, or a stylus, or a kickstand, or a slide-out keyboard, or a projector, or a microSD slot, or a removable battery on their phones. Those things are nice to have, and for some people, they can make or break a smartphone. For most, though, they aren’t essential.

Apple decided with the very first iPhone what they thought was essential for most people, and since then, they have worked relentlessly at making those features best in class and as affordable as possible. It may not always be the most exciting strategy, but it will almost certainly lead to the best possible product year in and year out.

More than any other product Apple makes, the iPhone represents the best, for the most, for the least.


Shortly after the iPhone 5 announcement, Dustin Curtis said on Twitter:

“Watching the iPhone manufacturing process video, it’s almost unbelievable that other phone makers are on the same planet at the same time.”

I think he’s looking at it the wrong way. Other manufacturers live on our planet. They do impressive things. Apple is from a different universe, and they’re playing a completely different game.

For starters, they’re using friggin’ robots to measure 725 individual pieces to achieve fit tolerances that are measurable in microns. This is absurdly awesome. The only other time I’ve seen technology like this used is in the manufacturing of very low-volume, high-end Swiss watches.

I don’t want to undersell this. Apple has figured out a way to bring Leica-level quality to a mass-produced consumer-electronic device that is purchased by 34.3% of the smartphone market.

Let me say that in a slightly different way: When you buy an iPhone 5, you are buying something that is comparable in quality to the parts made for the Mars Curiosity rover BUT THEY MAKE MILLIONS OF THEM!! As a designer who manufactures things, my feelings are a mix of awe and extreme jealousy.

iphone 5 white bottom angle 2 The iPhone 5: The best, for the most, for the least

Apple’s external antenna design requires a metal housing. A metal that is the perfect blend of strength and lightness but is also machinable, scratch-proof, low-cost, and able to be built at the quality Apple demands doesn’t exist. Not yet, anyway. Stainless steel and aluminum are the only real choices, but neither is absolutely perfect.

Stainless is extremely rugged and has a weighty, substantial feel. It’s also hard to machine and perhaps too heavy. Aluminum is very light, easy to machine, strong, and has the bonus ability of being able to be anodized different colors. However, it’s not quite as strong as stainless and is more easily scratched.

You can only make this decision by prototyping both a stainless and aluminum version and seeing what feels right. Ultimately, you go with stainless if you value ruggedness above all else. You choose Aluminum if you value lightness.

The best, for the most, for the least.

Apple chose lightness.

iphone5 ios62 The iPhone 5: The best, for the most, for the least

You use more senses than you realize when you evaluate something like aluminum. The look is important, but so is the weight, the texture, and even the sound.

Apple uses aluminum on most of their products. On larger items like the MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, or iPad, it’s instantly recognizable as a metal because the product has weight from the rest of the components. Those products also feel incredibly solid as opposed to products made from large pieces of plastic, which tend to flex and sound creaky.

On smaller items, it’s harder to read aluminum as being a metal. Once you remove as much material as possible, much like Apple has done with the 5, aluminum can have an almost imperceptible weight difference from a lightweight plastic. Couple that with a unibody design and an across-the-board part-size reduction and you’re going to have people in disbelief over how light it actually is. This can actually turn out to be a problem.

Think about any high-end watch or camera. They always have a satisfyingly solid feel to them. The iPhone 4/4S had this quality. It wasn’t exactly a brick, but it had a weight that made it feel like it wasn’t just another plastic phone. It felt special.

Lightness can make a product feel cheap. Plastic watches are light and cheap. Metal watches are heavy and expensive. Our brains are wired to take weight into consideration when we evaluate new things.

Matte, anodized finishes can be easily confused with a silver-painted plastic. Small pieces of plastic can feel as strong as small pieces of aluminum. Once you pick it up, you can start to tell the difference, but the point is, you want to entice people to pick it up in the first place.

The first thing people say when they hold an iPhone 5 is something like, “Wow, that’s really light.” You want to make sure that’s a quality feeling and not a cheap feeling.

With the iPhone 5, Apple’s designers wisely decided to combine two finishes: large swaths of matte finish for protection, and then small, polished details to highlight precision. Apple places so much emphasis on those diamond-cut, high-polished chamfers because, besides being really freaking impressive, they let you know that the iPhone 5 is made from a high-quality metal.

Two other benefits to the chamfer: They make the 5 fit more comfortably in your hand, especially compared to the 4/4s, and they visually tie together the disparate materials on back of the device.

There is also a more emotive quality to combining finishes. Matte is practical and protective, but maybe a little boring. Polish is flashy and rich-looking, but maybe a little too flashy and not that pragmatic. Combine them in the right way and you tell the story of a product that is smart, not boring. Luxurious but not ostentatious.

iphone 5 white bottom angle The iPhone 5: The best, for the most, for the least

The scuffability of the iPhone 5’s aluminum housing seemed like a big deal in the days immediately following the launch, but that worry seems to have dissipated. Either everyone’s scuff fears have been allayed or they decided to move on to the next thing to be upset about.

Apple protects its aluminum products by sandblasting and then anodizing the surface. Sandblasting is what gives it the matte finish. Anodizing is like the protective, hard-candy coating.

Actually, anodizing is not a coating at all, but a chemical process that permanently alters the surface of the aluminum. It’s like getting a protective tattoo. Anodizing is a lot more durable than paint, which can flake, crack, or peel off, but it’s still only skin-deep. Any decent nicks, gouges, or scuffs will reveal the silvery aluminum core underneath.

Both the white and black iPhone 5 are anodized. The white was clear anodized, leaving the aluminum silvery in color. The black was black anodized, tinting the aluminum black. In either case, when the aluminum is gouged, it will reveal the silver-colored core underneath. Since black is a high contrast to silver, scratches will be more pronounced looking on the black iPhone 5.

My wife has a 5-year-old second-gen iPod shuffle that she uses for working out. It has a few nicks, but they’re mostly concentrated around the sharp edges. For the most part, it looks great for a such a heavily used device.

Sharp edges always wear away faster than round or flat surfaces. Think of it like grating a wedge of cheese. If you grate cheese on a long, flat side, it will take awhile to get through it all. If you grate it on the edges, it will wear away quicker. Aluminum is far stronger than cheese, but the same analogy applies.

The difference between my wife’s Shuffle and the iPhone 5 is in the chamfers. Each chamfer creates two sharp edges, meaning the 5 actually has four sharp edges, doubling the chances for nicks or cuts to accumulate in those areas.

The chamfers are an impressive manufacturing detail. They look great, reinforcing the fact that the iPhone 5 is made of metal while visually creating a continuous line that ties the back together. They also make the iPhone fit more comfortably in your hand. On the flip side, they will most likely be the first part of your phone that gets scuffed.

The best choice, for the most people, for the least cost.

In any event, I don’t think anyone should be too worried about scuffs. When you first hold the 5 in your hands you want to baby it. But after a short time you’ll realize it’s actually pretty tough and can withstand a bit of abuse. Aluminum may be softer than steel, but it’s still far stronger than glass or plastic. The 5’s closest relative in case design is actually the original iPad, and it’s holding up pretty well after three years.

What’s interesting about this to me is that most of Apple’s products are made of aluminum and can be scuffed. Will your iPhone 5 get scuffed? Most likely yes. Will anything you ever own get a scratch on it? Exactly.

So why the worry about the iPhone 5 getting scratched over everything else? Out of the box, the 5 is perhaps the most pristine and tightly toleranced mass-produced device ever. People understandably want it to stay that way for as long as possible. The more you simplify and refine something, the more even the smallest imperfections seem like a big deal.


Some final thoughts…

A thinner iPhone means thinner iPhone cases. If you’re a case person, the iPhone 5 will probably feel about the same thickness as a naked iPhone 4/4S.

I’ve seen an explosion in iPhone sleeves for this generation. They seem to be a good compromise for those who want to protect their iPhone, but also want to appreciate the design of the hardware. DodocaseKillspencerMakr, and Hard Graft all make nice ones.

 The iPhone 5: The best, for the most, for the least

I’m curious why Apple decided not to make the front display glass flush with the aluminum frame. It seems like that would better protect the glass and keep the aesthetics cleaner.

I also can’t figure out how Apple is adding the polished logo and iPhone name on the back. Manual polishing? Foil stamp? An acid etch that polished the aluminum? Either way, it’s impressive.


iphone 5 earpods1 The iPhone 5: The best, for the most, for the least
EarPods and the new Lightning connector are the type of seemingly insignificant design projects that actually take a tremendous amount of time and money to finesse. They aren’t as glamorous as the iPhone 5 itself, but they are little labors of love. Congrats to all who worked on them because they are terrific.

I already wrote at length about the Lightning connector, so let’s talk about Earpods. They are quite the upgrade over the old earbuds. If I do anything more than a brisk walk, they fall out of my ears, but they sound better and feel much more comfortable than the old earbuds.

The remote on the EarPod cord has a little microphone graphic instead of a perforated metal hole. Come to find out via iFixit, that perforated metal hole on the old earbuds was just for show, only there to give you a visual cue that a microphone was built into the control. Hardware skeuomorphism.

The plastic headphone case that the EarPods come with seems a little wasteful to me. Previous generations of earbuds came tightly wrapped in a small, thin plastic sleeve. Granted, the case is more beautiful, but is anyone going to use it after they take out the EarPods for the first time?

My theory is:

1) The EarPods are new, they worked a long time on them, and they want them to stand out as being special when you open the box.

2) They developed the standalone retail package and once they had the assembly line set up, it was more efficient to package them all the same way, regardless of how they would eventually be sold.

iphone 5 white back angle The iPhone 5: The best, for the most, for the least

The inlaid pieces used on the back of the 5 are ceramic glass for the white iPhone and pigmented glass for the black iPhone. In other words, the inlays are not back-painted like the glass on the front of the iPhone — they are opaque. This should mean that scratches will be less noticeable.

Between the special glass inlays on the back, Gorilla Glass 2 on the front, and the sapphire crystal lens cover, my guess is Corning has a very good two years ahead of it.

Which reminds me: Sapphire crystal lens cover. Sapphire. Crystal. Lens cover. Unbelievable. *Throws hands up in the air and walks out of the room*

The Verge: Office 2013 coming to iOS and Android in March (Updated)

Microsoft will release Android and iOS versions of Office 2013 in March, Petr Bobek, Microsoft’s product manager, reportedly said at a press event in the Czech Republic on Wednesday.

“In addition to Windows, Office will also be available on other operating systems: Windows Phone, Windows RT, Mac OS, Android, iOS and Symbian,” the company said in a press release that was handed out at the event.

According to The Verge, which translated the press release, Microsoft also revealed that Office 2013 will be available to businesses in December and to consumers by the end of February.

Update: Frank Shaw, head of corporate communications at Microsoft, said on Twitter today that the information leaked by the company’s Czech subsidiary isn’t accurate.

Kickstarter launching in U.K. on October 31

kickstarter dark Kickstarter launching in U.K. on October 31Crowdfunding platform Kickstarter will launch in the U.K. on October 31, and users in that country can start building their projects today, the company announced on Wednesday.

The U.K. version of Kickstarter will function just like its U.S. counterpart with two exceptions: projects will be listed in pounds sterling, and project backers will enter their payment information directly into Kickstarter rather than through Amazon Payments.

iPhone production slowed down by Apple’s decision to use weak aluminum

To make the iPhone 5 as thin and light as possible, Apple chose to use a type of aluminum that’s susceptible to nicks and scratches, sources told Bloomberg on Wednesday. Predictably, Apple’s decision has affected the quality of some of its smartphones, with many customers complaining that their iPhones were damaged when they received them.

Apple initially denied that its latest iPhone is unusually prone to aesthetic defects. In an email to a disappointed customer, for instance, Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president for global marketing, said, “Any aluminum product may scratch or chip with use, exposing its natural silver color. That is normal.”

But as the number of complaints grew, Apple reportedly told executives at Foxconn to enforce stricter quality-control standards, and as a result, production has slowed down.

“Every step in the iPhone 5 production process, from the manufacturing of the aluminum housing to final assembly, offers opportunities to scratch the soft metal exterior, making it difficult to produce enough of the devices that can meet the new standards,” workers at Foxconn told Bloomberg.

Samsung will reveal a 4-inch version of the Galaxy S III on October 11

Samsung will launch a 4-inch version of its flagship smartphone, the Galaxy S III, on October 11 in Germany, the company’s head of mobile communications, JK Shin, announced on Wednesday.

Shin said the phone, whose screen will be nearly an inch smaller than the 4.8-inch Galaxy S III it’s based on, won’t be watered down and will instead have “full form factor.”

“We’ll be launching a 4-inch Galaxy S III on the 11th in Germany,” Shin said. “There’s a lot of demand for a 4-inch screen device in Europe. Some call it an entry-level device, but we call it ‘mini.’”

The future of Google

Most people know Google as the search engine company with a bunch of side projects. In the next 20 years that will all change. Let’s take a step back and look at what Google actually does. They are a company that organizes the world’s information. With Google Search, they were able to index all the available online information and make it accessible. The next and much harder task is to organize the physical world.

google maps traffic The future of Google

Google Maps is their attempt to do just that. In The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal explained how Google is deploying a huge force of people to improve their maps. The maps from governments, satellite shots, and street-view images are all stitched together by hand to create a searchable database of our world. You should read his full article to get an idea of how massive and hard the Google Maps operation is. It’s crazy to see just how much manual work has to be done.

While Alexis hinted at the implications of indexing the physical world, he didn’t fully explore the possibilities. That’s what I’m here for. Alexis quoted novelist Robin Sloan, who said, “In 50 years, Google will be the self-driving car company (powered by this deep map of the world).” But that’s only part of the story.

google self driving car The future of Google

Google’s self-driving cars are already touring the US. As of August 2012, the cars have driven over 300,000 miles accident-free. In the near future, many people will abandon their current cars for self-driving ones. They’ll likely only be within reach of the wealthy at first, and of course enthusiasts will still prefer to drive their own cars, but the adoption rate will be close to the S curve.

Having a database of the physical world (Google Maps) will make the self-driving cars that much more powerful. Imagine getting in your car and saying “take me to McDonald’s” or “take me to work.” It will even be possible to get in your car on a weekday morning and have it automatically take you to work. This why Google is currently testing Google Now. If you have a flight, the car will know to take you to the airport. If you have a meeting, the car will whisk you there.

It’s even crazier to think that soon Google will convert their Street View cars into driverless cars. That means that Google will have self-driving cars around the country that are constantly improving the company’s database. Skynet is happening.

Google Glass will also take advantage of Google Maps’ massive database. If you haven’t heard, Google Glass is what the search giant calls its forthcoming smart glasses, which deliver augmented reality to users. When walking around, say, a city, Google Glass devices will use images from the on-board camera as well as GPS and compass data to tell users what restaurants they’re looking at along with the restaurants’ reviews, hours, and menus. Of course, that’s just a single example of what Google Glass will be capable of, and I encourage you to watch this video to get a better idea of what Google’s plan is.

google gigabit internet The future of Google

When Google Fiber was announced, everyone got super excited, and then stepped back and asked why. Why would Google pump so much money into the project when they don’t stand to turn a profit on it? people wondered. Journalists have jumped to the easy conclusion that Google did it to make Comcast, Time Warner, and AT&T look bad. And others have speculated that Google is curious to see what people do with super-fast Internet. I think there’s more to it. To get Google Fiber in your neighborhood, you have to sign up in groups. If a certain undisclosed percentage of your neighborhood signs up, you will be one of the first neighborhoods to get Google Fiber. It creates a competition to build excitement, but again, I think there’s more to it. All of the Google Fiber set-top boxes, modems, and routers are Wi-Fi hotspots, so every house that gets it will have several Wi-Fi access points. Since the homes with Google Fiber will be clustered in neighborhoods, you end up with areas of the city that are blanketed with Wi-Fi from Google Fiber. Over time this will expand to the whole city, to other cities around the country, and eventually to the whole country. This is the Wi-Fi cell-phone network that Steve Jobs dreamed about.

Google Maps will be the base layer. Google Fiber will be the communication protocol. Project Glass will be how you interface with the world while walking around. Google’s driverless cars will be there to take you anywhere either automatically or by natural-language input.

The next 20 years are going to be just as exciting as the past 20. People who say technological progress is slowing down are not thinking hard enough. I think Apple knows all of this, and it scares them to death. I just hope Google keeps Gmail around.

Jack Dorsey on diminished role at Twitter: It’s part of the plan

The New York Times’s Nick Bilton wrote on Saturday that Jack Dorsey’s role at Twitter, the microblogging service he created in 2006, was reduced after employees complained that he was indecisive and difficult to work with. But Dorsey denied that account in a blog post on Tuesday, saying that everything’s unfolded according to the plan he cooked up with Dick Costolo, Twitter’s CEO. His new, diminished role, he said, was mutually agreed upon, and it allows him to concentrate on his other creation, Square.

There was a great profile in the New York Times about Twitter’s CEO, Dick Costolo, which mentioned my work at the company. It’s not a common arrangement, so I’d like to clarify a few points.

In Spring of 2011, Dick asked me to take an operational role overseeing product, design, and brand. Our shared goal was to get those organizations back under him as soon as possible, simply because it was the right thing to do for the company. We moved all of my reports back under him in January of this year after leadership was firmly in place. This allowed me to focus on refining our brand and logo, to work more with Dick and the leadership team on our direction forward, and ultimately return the majority of my time to Square, where I’m CEO. I’m back to going to Twitter on Tuesday afternoons, something I started before taking the interim operational role.

We haven’t talked about this publicly because it’s not what people using Twitter every day care about.

I’m fortunate in life to be a part of two foundational and mission-driven organizations, and I’m always going fight like hell to make them thrive. And they are! Now back to our work.

CNET: Google and Samsung will team up to make a 10.1-inch Nexus tablet

Google’s answer to Amazon’s Kindle Fire, the Nexus 7, is made by Asus. But the search giant has an iPad competitor in the pipeline, too, and that tablet will be made by Samsung, an analyst who’s familiar with Google’s plans told CNET on Sunday.

According to Richard Shim, an analyst with NPD DisplaySearch, Google’s forthcoming Nexus tablet will measure 10.1 inches from corner to corner and boast a resolution of 2,560 x 1,600. If that’s true, the device will have the highest pixel density of any tablet — about 299 pixels per inch, to be exact. Apple’s latest iPad, by contrast, has a resolution of 2,048 x 1,536 and a pixel density of 264 PPI.

“It’s going to be a high-end device,” Shim said.

What’s more, Shim said, Google will begin producing a $99 entry-level tablet in December.