The Biggest Design Mistakes Apple Has Made in the Past Two Years

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Apple has lost its mojo. Their obsessive attention to detail seems to have slipped away.

When Apple revived itself and found its way into everybody’s homes, hands, and wallets, it became a company that consistently met and exceeded expectations. It became a company with the resources to do virtually anything, with more cash on hand than the US government.

Apple has become accustomed to making stuff that people actually want. And, while it still hits far more often than misses, its misses speak the loudest about the post-Steve Jobs Apple–a little sloppy, half-baked, and seemingly uninspired. Apple’s newer products are often flawed and puzzling, sacrificing both form and function. For a company that has built its reputation on creating and delivering vastly superior, near-perfect products, we as customers have come to expect the same.

Unfortunately the Tim Cook era of Apple products just hasn’t met Apple’s own defining standards. Let’s take a look at a few of the bigger missteps.

The Watch We Didn’t Need

The Apple Watch is a disappointment. The Watch is the perfect example of a meh product that Apple has thrown a lot of weight and money behind. It is the mediocre gadget the world didn’t really need.

Does the Watch have things going for it? Of course. The digital crown could be brilliant, if it was more intuitive and actually did something useful. I like the heart rate monitor and how I can wear the Watch on the treadmill to record my distance. It’s nice also to be able to glance at your wrist to check texts and messages. And, obviously I can check the time, set timers, and use it as a stopwatch.

But the Watch is the biggest new Apple design in the Tim Cook era, and it hasn’t quite caught fire the way the iPod, iPhone, and iPad have. It’s kind of clunky and thick. It doesn’t slip sveltely under shirt sleeve cuffs or play nice with wrist guards. It’s not uncomfortable, per se, but I don’t want to wear it all the time–or to bed, which foils its chance at being a useful sleep tracker.

The first Watch series was slow, often painfully so. Apple at least fixed that problem with the Series 2 model, though apart from the internals–and the ability to go swimming with your watch–they didn’t make any meaningful changes to its mediocre design.

The Watch Series 2 has pretty much the same design, which means it’s still thick and bulky.

Worse, the Watch is mated to the iPhone. You have to own an iPhone to use the Watch, and you have to carry the iPhone with you to make use of all its features. Any advantage you might gain by wearing the Watch sans iPhone is largely negated by this fact. The Watch is more of an extension of your iPhone than its own product, a glorified notification device in many regards. Which is great, except it costs $370.

Siri was enticing when the Watch was announced. Being able to issue commands with your voice makes sense because the interface is so small, and it’s nice not to have to scroll and tap when I’m trying to run or drive or similar activity. Siri could make the Watch more practical, but it’s so limited that it’s more of an afterthought than a killer feature.

Apple had a chance to change the idea of smartwatches with something truly groundbreaking. It had a chance to be the smartwatch that set the standard by being thin, standalone, and indispensable, with battery life that could be measured in days; a smartwatch beyond comparison.

But instead, it made just another smartwatch. Maybe it would’ve been better not to make it at all and wait instead for the technology needed to create that perfect product. After all, Apple’s never needed to be first, it just had to be the best.

The New MacBook: A Laptop That’s All About Dongles

Apple fanboys often decry the company’s lack of new computers, namely desktops and laptops, but let’s not forget they did release a brand new MacBook last year, and more recently, an updated MacBook Pro. While the new Pro introduces one genuinely interesting innovation: the Touch Bar, it has followed the same path as its MacBook brethren with regard to ports.

Maybe Apple is showing a little too much “courage” with these designs. They get a lot of things right, but they also show a blatant disregard for user-friendliness. We are, obviously, referring to the Macbook’s one lonely USB-C port (the Pro has four) , which singlehandedly created an entirely new industry of third-party dongles and docks. Not to mention made Apple’s own products incompatible with one another without buying extra cables and headphones.

Apple seems to think that with each new product it releases, it’s innovating by making everything thinner and eliminating ports. But at a certain point, this isn’t progress–it’s inconvenient.

Apple’s move to USB-C ports for everything also eschews one of Apple’s greatest inventions to date: the Magsafe power connector. Magsafe not only works at charging and powering my Mac, it’s saved it innumerable times from ending up on the floor in a shattered pile. Why fix something that isn’t broken? Better still, why fix something that can prevent it from being broken?

So long magsafe connector and thanks for all saving us from innumerable encounters with gravity.

The MacBook Air still feels impossibly thin. Why do we need a MacBook that is thinner and sacrifices functionality? At the end of the day, it’s still going to fit in your carry-on bag. The fact then that you have to bring accessories along to ensure you can plug in your external devices, or that you need to buy new accessories, is more inconvenient than an extra millimeter or two of thickness.

Needing all that crap also means that there is something seriously deficient with the machine you’re using.

That iPhone Battery Case: aka The Hunchback of Cupertino

Battery cases seem a trifle, but if you’re going to cover up a phone as nice looking as an iPhone, you’d think Apple would make it sleek and striking. Nope. If anything, the battery case is the ultimate example of a product that Apple could’ve designed and made perfectly, but (no pun intended) phoned it in instead.

An iPhone is a beautiful marriage of form and function. It’s a pleasure to behold and use, but it’s also fragile and prone to breaking, so putting it in a case is a practical and inexpensive way of protecting it (compared to fixing or replacing a broken phone).

When Apple releases a battery case, I expect them to bring something to the table that offers solid protection and keeps the battery topped off, but also be aesthetically pleasing. It should say, “okay, I know I’m covering up this gorgeous piece of electronic wonderment, but it still looks good.”

Quasi-battery-o

But the hump doesn’t add any functionality. It makes it look like the battery is enormous, but its capacity isn’t all that great, especially for the $99 price point. With its billions in cash and massive design force, you’d think Apple could make a battery case that offers unparalleled battery life while still looking nice and flat. After all, other case manufacturers don’t seem to have a problem with this concept, and for often less than Apple is asking for theirs.

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A battery case may not seem like the most revolutionary of products, this is still symbolic of the new Apple. It’s simple, something Apple could have easily knocked out of the park, a no-brainer.

Instead, it feels like a rushed, dumb failure, like a bad accident that’s best not stared at but rather just quickly forgotten. Does it work? Sure it does, but there are nicer, more well-thought out alternatives if you just shop around.

AirPods: I’d Shake My Head, but They’d Probably Fall Out

Apple did away with the headphone jack on the iPhone 7. And to make up for it, they brought us a $159 pair of Q-Tips, and then indefinitely delayed them.

Even if Apple doesn’t want one, a tether for the AirPods makes sense.

Arguably, the technology packed inside the AirPods is actually pretty amazing. Apple did some remarkable things, all put it into a space that’s small enough to be considered an engineering feat. But that beauty ends at the internals. Yes, the AirPods are striking, but they’re also kind of silly.

Not only do they look like Q-Tips sticking out of your ears, but you have to place in a special box to recharge, every five hours, and then you have to charge the box! It’s a $159 set of earbuds that can fall out just like the EarPods did (if you, like many of us, don’t have perfect EarPod-shaped ears). Only when these fall out, they aren’t tethered to your person, so they’re likely to just get lost. (But, not to worry, another third-party innovator aims to fix that.)

But tether aside, here’s the real problem with the AirPods: apart from adding wireless, they haven’t improved Apple’s already-mediocre EarPods. The EarPods’ greatest flaw isn’t that the weight of the cord pulls them out of my ears, as CEO Tim Cook would have you believe. Earpods don’t fit my ears well. I tend to have to seat and reseat them in my ears several times to I get a “good enough” feel–and I’m not alone. In fact, a whole cottage industry has sprung up just to address this problem. This is how I know I won’t be comfortable jogging over bridges or past sewer grates wearing AirPods.

I understand the EarPods that come with the iPhone are what they are. Apple doesn’t have to give us free earphones, but it does, and they do the job. But if you’re looking to drop a big wad of cash on something wireless, there are better, cheaper, and more well-designed options for ears of all sizes. With AirPods, Apple took fantastic internals and put them inside their same old crappy pair of earbuds.

Honorable Mention: The Pencil’s Puzzling Lightning Connector

The Pencil is a niche item that very few Apple users will ever use. Still, it looks almost like an amazing Apple product. It’s a must-have accessory for designers, creative types, and artists who use the iPod Pro as their canvas.

Except this:

You see, when you want to charge The Pencil, you are supposed to do this, which necessitates yet another connector that you have to keep or lug around with you, and not lose. (Plus the cap, which also looks like it’s begging to get lost.)

What’s with Apple’s thing for dongles and losable connectors?

Apple does offer an alternative, which is just as stupid: you could plug it into your iPad Pro. But why in the world would I plug a $99 breakable stick into the charging port on an iPad Pro so that it fragilely sticks out, making it susceptible to airborne cats or an absent-minded gesture?

No, just no.
Again, it takes a third-party manufacturer to offer a better option for charging the Apple Pencil.

This is exactly the problem. Apple designs something 90% of the way, and then wings it the rest. With the Pencil, you’ve got a cap to hide the male Lightning connector, which can be lost and a female-to-female Lightning connector, which can be lost. Why not figure out a way to keep the cap attached to the Pencil? Better yet, why not just incorporate a female Lightning connector into the design?

I know, the Pencil’s charging method is a quibble, but I think it speaks to a larger, nagging problem for Apple. They’re messing up perfectly good ideas with really questionable design decisions.

If you release a $99 digital pen accessory, it needs to make complete sense. Every aspect should make you say, “this is so well designed and sensible.” The same goes for a $370 smartwatch, $100 battery case or $160 earbuds.

Perfect Enough Isn’t Good Enough

A company like Apple needs to offer products that look, feel, and function like every phase of the design process underwent Steve Jobs-like scrutiny. And, maybe that’s why the best designed, most iconic and enduring Apple products are the ones that exist from the Steve Jobs era.

The iPhone is still an unparalleled, world-class piece of technology. The iPad is still the tablet to beat. The MacBook Air and Pro are very nearly perfect laptops. Even the old click wheel iPod is still undeniably impressive, long after it’s stopped being truly relevant.

It seems reasonable to think that this maniacal attention to detail and eye for design would’ve sent the battery case back to the drawing board. Maybe the Watch would’ve come out later on, or we’d at least have seen a bigger improvement between version 1 and 2. And, that male connector on the Pencil…there had to be a more elegant way.

It’s obvious that Apple is still innovating, they’re just not perfecting anymore. Instead, they say “here’s a new product, it’s got some serious flaws and design issues, but we think you’ll buy it because it’s made by Apple.”

There is genius hidden in certain parts of Apple’s new products. But without the adherence to 100% perfection, the Watch just feels like another smartwatch in a sea of other smartwatches. The battery case is battery case in a deluge of (better) battery cases, and the AirPods are an expensive duplicate of cheap earbuds.

It remains to be seen what Apple has in store for the majority of its laptops and desktops. The new MacBook Pro’s new Touch Bar is compelling, but only a small portion of Mac users will have access to it. It won’t change how the overwhelming majority of Mac users interact with their computers, unless Apple starts including it on lower-end models.

For now, we’ll have to contend with the company largely ignoring its other Mac models while Microsoft swoops in and does something truly cool and exciting. Then again, Apple could have a promising future in the dongle business.

Matt Klein is an aspiring Florida beach bum, displaced honorary Texan, and dyed-in-wool Ohio State Buckeye, who fancies himself a nerd-of-all-trades. His favorite topics might include operating systems, BBQ, roller skating, and trying to figure out how to explain quantum computers.