One of the rubber feet on my old MacBook got scuffed shortly after I bought it. For a long time, I fretted about reducing the laptop’s resale value and spoiling its precise, perfectionist aesthetic, but now that I’m using a new machine, I miss that stupid scuff so dearly. I wasn’t aware of it then, but I’d developed a habit of fingering the fissure when anxiously waiting to cover a live event or new product launch. It was my little bit of tactile reassurance that I had the equipment needed for my job, which my new Haswell MacBook, though faster and longer-lasting, just can’t provide. Unless I decide to personalize it by spoiling it just a little.
There’s something in the physical bond I developed with my old computer that speaks to why and how we fall in love with technology. I hooked on to the one aspect about my mass-produced MacBook that was unlike its millions of brethren: the physical flaw that distinguished it. Prior to that, I had a Seiko watch that I wore for years, and it too had a scratch, this one sitting prominently above the 4- and 5-hour markers on the watch face. That scratch was with me on my first date with a girl I loved, in the exam hall during my law degree, and, on one occasion, at Gatwick Airport when I had to sprint to catch a flight. Some of the most profoundly emotional moments of my life were shared with a watch, which I knew was my own by its unique, albeit imperfect, appearance. After that Seiko, every other watch felt cold, sterile, and inorganic by comparison. They told the time, but not my time.
It’s been hard to find such vectors of physical connection with modern consumer electronics. The typical smartphone choice has been between soft, insipid plastic — such as Samsung made infamous with its line of Galaxy phones — and the excessively fussy and precisely machined aluminum shells of an iPhone or HTC One. The former class of devices are simply unlovable and the latter feel so damn precious that I end up hiding them away in silly cases.
Things are starting to change for the better, though, and Motorola’s Moto Maker service is a big part of that shift. It offers a broad choice of colors in combination with various new materials (including leather!) to let me specify a phone that’s distinctly mine without requiring that I spoil it in some uniquely Vlad way. Sure, there will be others who choose the same metallic orange Moto X with a bamboo back as me, but that’s a far smaller group than the tens of millions of space gray iPhone owners.
Conformity is for technical standards, not aesthetic decisions
I hate bad design, but I hate conformity even more, and the individualization that Moto offers will, over the course of a phone’s lifetime, engender greater loyalty and care for the device. Parents would struggle to love their children if they were all clones, and the same is true of us when it comes to the gadgets and devices we hold dear.
The future is going to provide a lot more opportunity for personal electronics to become truly personal. Apple’s Watch was announced under the banner of endless customizability — with "millions and millions" of options, according to Jony Ive — and there’s already a wide diversity of choice on offer from wearable device makers like Fitbit and Jawbone. By the end of this year, every smartphone manufacturer will also have a smartwatch or some other wearable to sell you, which will open up a whole new world of materials, shapes, sizes, and designs to choose from. Moto seems like the outlier today, but before long every purveyor of electronics will have to have some expertise in more exotic materials like leather, gold, and even platinum as technology moves closer to jewelry and further away from its image as a bland, plastic, unnatural thing.
The future might be curvier and more seductive than most of us imagined
None of these new gadgets will be as indispensable as the smartphone or laptop anytime soon, but their presence and customizable nature are setting new expectations for consumer electronic purchases. Phones are already becoming more organic in their design. The iPhone 6 and Xperia Z3 feel so much nicer than their blocky predecessors because they’ve done away with the straight edges and curved every surface: technology demands squares and cubes, but the human hand is most comfortable with ellipses and cylinders.
The next stage in the evolution of smartphones, and of consumer electronics in general, is to give the user real control over the look and feel of the device so that it can be made to feel distinct. I’ve no doubt that the greatest innovation and utility of future technology will come through software rather than hardware, but it will be the physical things that carry our smart and connected worlds within them that we’ll grow attached to.
My old watch told me my time and my laptop took my notes, but their unique and strangely lovable aspects arose as accidents of wear and tear. The personal tech companies that succeed in the future will do so by recreating the same sense of tangible, tactile connection between their device and its owner that I’ve felt all these years about my less-than-perfect gadgets.