Why Apple Stuck With the Same iPhone Hardware Design

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Apple’s shocking new iPhone 3G S design.

No matter how great an Apple Keynote goes, there are always disappointments. Changes not made, rumors left unrealized. For this year’s WWDC, Apple actually managed to avoid most of these (other than anything that has to do with the strength of AT&T’s network or upgrade pricing for existing customers). We got a more powerful iPhone, meaningful upgrades to the unibody MacBook Pro line, and release announcements for both iPhone OS 3.0 and OS X Snow Leopard. Other than a few pipe dreams (Steve Jobs riding in on a white tiger, cold fusion-powered tabler), Apple did a great job by hitting a whole bunch of base hits. No home runs, but no strike-outs, either.

Except for one thing: the all-new iPhone 3G S looks exactly like a previous-generation iPhone, to the point that there is no way at all to tell the new 16 GB model from the model it replaces — even in the fine print on the back. This was a shock to many folks, myself included, who were expecting Apple to change things up with a new black frame to replace the familiar chrome and a rubberized matte case to provide a more durable experience.

Why? What could Apple possibly gain from letting its industrial design team copy and paste? Don’t they want us all lost in lust?

Of course they do — which is why Apple has been putting design resources into product lines that are either brand new or waning. The iPhone sells itself today. A specification bump alone is enough to set off an Internet frenzy about AT&T’s unjust policies (check Twitter if you don’t believe me), and there will be longer lines outside Apple Stores on June 19 to get what is ultimately an incremental upgrade to the iPhone than there were this weekend to launch the much-hyped Palm Pre. That’s with the case staying exactly the same — what could Apple possibly gain by throwing a ton of work into a redesign that can’t even alter the screen or home button?

Look at the current line of unibody laptops. A year ago, Apple’s notebook line-up was a complete shambles. MacBook Pros still looked like late-generation PowerBooks. The black and white MacBooks were under-powered and over-heavy. And Apple offered nothing to someone who wanted a small form factor and significant power. Apple Design first launched the MacBook Air in January and then rolled out its signature design elements into every single product in the family. That kind of design focus has made the unibody MacBook Pros some of the best computers Apple has ever made, in addition to being the best-selling in company history. The design team’s abilities transformed Apple’s line-up from long in the tooth to desirable in a few months.

So what’s Apple got the industrial team cooking up now? I can’t say with certainty, but people better-connected than me claim that the long-requested iTablet is real and on its way — exactly the kind of new to the world product that demands serious design attention from Jonathan Ive and team. The scenarios of use are different. A bigger exposed screen raises serious questions about protection. And, quite honestly, I don’t know if anyone outside of Silicon Valley will quite know what to make of it unless Apple designs it perfectly and makes it very clear how to use it and why you would want to. It needs attention to thrive.

Eleven days from now, when I pull my iPhone 3G S out of its box, I will be a little sorry that its back is glossy and fingerprint-laden. But I’ll be happier to know that Apple’s design team is working on something new, interesting and complex — exactly the kind of problem they’re brilliant at solving.