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Mossberg: In tech, form trumps function too often

Mossberg: In tech, form trumps function too often


Nobody wants beige boxes, but practicality matters, too

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Almost exactly 15 years ago, in October of 2001, a major consumer tech product appeared that struck a nearly perfect balance between form and function, between beautiful design and practical engineering. It was the original iPod.

The little music player held 1,000 songs. Its sound, its battery life, its ability to sync rapidly with computers, were all unparalleled at the time. And its design and ease of use were awe-inspiring. It was the size of a deck of cards. It had an amazing scroll wheel for navigating through all your tracks. It was like a digital work of art that also fixed all the practical problems of earlier MP3 players, which I called “frustrating” in my first iPod review, listing all their drawbacks.

In that review, I called the Apple device “a terrific digital music player that solves all of these problems. It has massive storage capacity, is small and light enough to slip into a pocket and can be run nonstop for an impressive amount of time. Its controls are simple and clear, and it downloads music from a computer at blazing speeds.”

You look gorgeous

The original iPod (whose successor, the iPod Classic, has been sadly discontinued, though Apple still sells three other iPods) wasn’t the last product to wow critics like me with its combination of beauty and functionality. For instance, in 2005, I called the desktop iMac of the day “gorgeous” and “the gold standard of desktop PCs.”

I’ve used that word “gorgeous” or something similar to describe products I also praised for their mix of striking design and strong practicality a number of times, including the 2010 redesign of the MacBook Air and this summer’s HP Spectre laptop.

the balance of form and function seems to have tilted too far toward the design side

But, lately, that iPod-like balance of form and function seems to have tilted too far toward the cool design side, at the cost of functionality. The most notable examples come from Apple, because it has, for the longest time, been the tech company most obsessed with design. But the trend isn’t limited to Apple.

I’m not going to rehash the arguments over the iPhone 7’s lack of a headphone jack, or the new MacBook Pro’s lack of legacy ports. It isn’t that critics of these things don’t have a point. It’s just that I don’t believe these decisions were made primarily for aesthetic reasons, but because Apple has long been extremely aggressive in moving to new I/O standards and dropping old ones.

Really, just one port?

A better example of Apple’s tilt toward design at the expense of functionality is its other relatively new laptop, the 2015 MacBook, upgraded this year, which starts at $1,299, weighs just two pounds and is only half an inch thin at its thickest point. It’s beautiful and light and alluring. But it has just one port other than the headphone jack, and that sole port is going to be mostly used for charging. Apple explains that there just wasn’t room for more, given that the machine is super-thin and its small footprint leaves almost no space on the sides of the keyboard anyway.

But this means that, if, say, you’d like to charge your phone via the computer while the latter is plugged in — a common scenario — you’ll need a dongle.

Also, the MacBook uses a low-end Intel processor, the Core m series, which doesn’t muster the oomph of Intel’s Core i chips, but doesn’t require a fan. The lack of noise is nice, but you’ll notice the machine straining to keep up at times, even if you’re just opening a lot of browser tabs.

By contrast, the wildly successful and much-admired MacBook Air, which the company appears to be slowly killing off, manages to be thin and light without sacrificing functionality. It sports multiple ports, and an SD card slot. It uses full-fledged processors. Despite Apple’s refusal to give the Air a Retina screen or upgrade its processors, I find it outperforms the MacBook while still looking great.

I have absolutely no proof of this, but it’s not hard to imagine the MacBook’s designers salivating at the idea of a one-cord, no fan, very small laptop without worrying enough about a lack of connectors or substandard computing power.

But there are other paths. For instance, that HP Spectre I mentioned earlier is actually a tad thinner, but manages to add a couple of additional ports on the back edge of the machine, and to use full-fledged processors, even if they required a cleverly designed fan.

It’s not just Apple

That’s not to let Windows PCs off the hook for putting design over functionality. Ever since the ill-fated Windows 8 tried to mash a new tablet OS and traditional desktop Windows together, PC hardware makers have turned out a slew of hybrid laptops that claim to act like both tablets and laptops.

The trouble is that this design imperative has typically made the combo devices into either thick, heavy tablets or clamshells with detachable screens so heavy they balance poorly on your lap in laptop mode.

most people just use hybrid laptops as regular clamshells

Even though Windows 10 has downplayed the tablet feature for clamshells, it’s still there and so are the hybrids. This despite the fact that, as I’ve written before, several big PC makers have told me privately that their data shows most people just used these machines as regular clamshell laptops.

Perhaps the most egregious example of design dictating everything to the exclusion of common sense is the now-notorious Samsung Galaxy Note 7. It was widely hailed as beautiful, a huge design victory for the Korean giant. But, while we don’t know for sure what caused it to catch fire using batteries from two different vendors, it’s fair to speculate that the design itself pushed the delicate stability of the potentially flammable Lithium-ion batteries too far.

And then there are TVs. My new LG OLED TV, which I wrote about here, is almost paper-thin yet yields a brilliant picture. But, as I noted in my review, much less attention seems to have been paid to the user interface.

An even newer product, the Google Home intelligent speaker, also seems tilted a bit too much toward design over functionality. Here the imbalance is nowhere near as striking as on the MacBook, but it’s discernible to me when compared to the rival Amazon Echo. The Google product looks better, and thus fits better into home decor — a design win. But I find its two-microphone array and built-in speaker slightly inferior to the Echo’s 7 mics and speaker.

Bottom line

Great design made a huge difference when most tech was hard to use and clunky. But now that attractive design and thinness everywhere is almost table stakes, design for the sake of design is perhaps working against the user. Especially when it makes too many compromises in functionality.

I am not calling for a return to some ancient paradigm of beige boxes and to hell with appearance. I get just as excited as you do when I see a new gadget that looks amazing. But the real soul of the 2001 iPod — beauty and great functionality, woven together — seems to be missing too often these days, at least in my view. It’s time for the tech industry to get back there.