Is Apple Pencil a harbinger of the designapocalypse? [Friday Night Fights]

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Apple Pencil FNF
Is Apple's design team losing its way?
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

Apple is famous for its iconic designs, but is the company slowly losing its way?

Friday Night Fights bug Products like the Apple Pencil and Smart Battery Case suggest that Apple’s design team might be missing a certain spark. Even the iPhone, once the prettiest smartphone by a long shot, is now being outshone by rivals from the likes of Samsung and LG.

Join us in this week’s Friday Night Fight as we battle it out over whether Apple design has become lazy and boring. And be sure to have your say!

Luke Dormehl: I’ve been an Apple fan for years, but it’s hard to think of a time I’ve found its design less exciting.

Things like HomePod and the iPhone 8 give me hope. But there’s not been a ton of great recent design to get me really excited about Apple products. Certainly not in the way that, say, the iMac G3, or my beloved Power Mac G4 Cube, or even the O.G. iPhone did.

The designs seem stale in a lot of cases — and there are bafflingly poor design decisions in others. Remember the hideous humpbacked iPhone case? What about the Apple Pencil? I mean, I love it as a product, but it’s certainly flawed from a design perspective. Some of its design features are mindbogglingly bad.

Charlie Sorrel: Like what? It’s a pencil. The only thing I don’t like is the cap. And that plugging it into the iPad is about the most dangerous thing ever.

Luke: Yeah. Charging it is just ridiculously bad design, and Apple should have found a way of letting it be stored with the iPad. The same way the Newton used to let you store the stylus as part of the device.

Charlie: Surely they left that as an opportunity for case-makers?

Luke: Either way, it’s lazy design.

Charlie: Anyway, you refuse to even buy a cover for your iPad’s giant screen, so you can’t say anything. How is it lazy to leave elements out of a design? By that reckoning, Homer Simpson’s car must be the best design ever.

Luke: Why? For years, Apple conditioned us to think that covering up Jony Ive’s beautiful designs with cases was a crime against humanity. Now the company’s design has fallen off a cliff and the answer is … well, we sell a case for that.

Charlie: I think they just saw the money to be made in the case market. I’d hate to see a Luke Dormehl-designed Apple Pencil. Would it have a VGA port?

Luke: Homer’s car was brilliant. If the iPad had a horn that played “La Cucaracha,” Apple wouldn’t be seeing falling tablet sales.

Charlie: LOLOL.

Luke: But seriously, though, has Apple created one great, brilliant new design since the iPhone 4?

Charlie: So design has to be splashy and new? You have to deliberately throw out the stuff that works perfectly, just because it’s “old”? Also, the iPhone 5 was the best iPhone.

Luke: I’m not saying design has to be splashy and new. I’m just saying that Apple has clearly run out of inspiration. When Samsung is creating more beautiful phones, you know there’s a problem.

Charlie: It hasn’t. The iPhone and iPad are clearly better with each update. You’re equating “inspiration” with “different.”

Luke: You literally just argued that Apple’s mentality is to focus on selling product over some form of platonic ideal. Now you’re backtracking. You can’t have it both ways.

Charlie: How? Apple’s focus is on selling iPad cases?!? I’ll pretend you didn’t even say that. And Samsung’s software is crappy. You’re also mistaking “design” for decoration; Apple doesn’t make an iPhone and send it to Jony to decide what shape it’ll be. Design is everything, from the Secure Enclave to the shape of the corners.

Luke: Right. So either Apple is working to create a minimalist platonic ideal of what, say, a tablet should be — in which case it shouldn’t be sullied by lazy “well, you need a case for it” design “flourishes” to get it to neatly fit together. Or, it’s a company that creates flashy new objects in the hope of attracting the magpie-like gaze of users.

If you’re arguing the former, your case defense is awful. If you’re arguing the latter, then Apple should be coming up with exciting new designs.

And, yes, Samsung’s software is less good than Apple’s. But getting better. And your last line makes it sound like you can’t have a romantic evening with a partner without putting a Jony Ive pep talk on in the background to get you in the mood.

Charlie: Getting better. Fantastic.

Luke: I know what “design” is. I also know what laziness is.

Charlie: Put the iPhone 7 next to the original iPhone and you’ll instantly see just how much better it is. Every year when the new iPhone comes out, 95 percent of the pundits gripe about how boring it is, because they’re nitpicking the incremental changes. It’s like whining that the view from the top floor of the Empire State Building is lame because it’s no different than the view from the floor below it. You should be comparing it to ground level.

Meanwhile, Samsung and Microsoft are running in a new direction every year, which looks exciting close up — but they fail to build on anything. Each year is like starting from scratch.

Take a look at iOS 11 for the iPad, for example. It’s just about the most exciting OS release since iOS 7, and maybe earlier. It totally changes the game for tablet computers, while remaining true to iOS. And there’s no way Apple could have gotten there without years of incremental work.

While everyone else is focusing on putting together the flashiest list of gimmicky new features that will be forgotten in a year or two, Apple is playing the long game. Samsung’s stupid curved-edge screen isn’t innovative. It’s a gimmick. Meanwhile, Apple continues to refine the iPhone’s 10-year-old design, while everybody else starts over at year one, year after year.

What’s your take? Vote for the winner

What do you think. Is Apple still designing great products, or are recent devices like the Apple Pencil an indication that the company is dropping the ball?

Who do you think won this week’s Friday Night Fight? Vote in the poll and let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

Friday Night Fights is a series of weekly ideological cage matches between two no-mercy brawlers who will fight to the death — or at least agree to disagree — about which viewpoint is better.