Should, Must and Apple’s Little Details

It was one of those lazy, almost warm San Francisco weekends, blue skies with high clouds adding just a dash of drama and contrast. I spent much of my two days sitting at home, reading my friend Elle Luna’s new book, The Crossroads of Should and Must. It is astonishing that what was a blog post a year ago is now a book.

I am blown away by the emotional intensity of this book, where the words are enhanced by the author’s own artwork. Elle, who spoke at my last Roadmap conference, has escaped the trappings of a successful Silicon Valley career (she designed the first Uber and first Mailbox mobile apps) to become a full-time painter and creative artist. It is an uplifting tome that makes you question a lot about life and work.

IMG_3734.JPGOf course, I did much more than read this past weekend: I saw a few friends, went for some walks, took some photos and, like everyone else who qualifies as a fan of technology and design, I went to the Apple Store to see the Apple Watch up close and personal. When the Apple Watch launched, Apple invited me to its big launch event, and I got to see and experience the watch. The hardware was impressive, as I noted in my piece.

I didn’t experience the software then, and I still don’t know anything about the Apple Watch’s software experience: As a civilian (aka no longer part of the press corps), I don’t have access to the watch and have to wait in line. Depending on the review, the software experience of the Apple Watch is good, mediocre or meh. No one has said that it is exceptional — but apparently these reviewers might be chasing page views (no shit, these days it seems everything is about page views). John Gruber, whose opinions I trust, is also restrained in his review. I am pretty sure I will eventually have opinions, if and when I get the Apple Watch on my wrist.

Strapped

My visit this past weekend to the Apple store reaffirmed that the Apple Watch is an extremely well-engineered product. Pretty much every model I could access (that is, hold in my hands) was a glowing testimonial of Apple’s mastery of the hardware-manufacturing process. As a watch guy, I can safely say that while many of the high-end mechanical watches are superbly engineered, the medium-to-lower-tier watches are just okay. Well-made, perhaps, but not exceptionally well-engineered. Apple’s watches are far superior in their finish to some of the watch brands they are going to end up crushing: the Movados, the TAGs and the Skagens of the world.

AppleClasp

What blew me away was the exceptional attention to detail. The way you can slide the bands on and off from the watch is smooth and slick. And you don’t need any special tools: A tiny bit of pressure does the job, and the sliding has the smoothness of silk.

And then there is the quality of the leather. Just as Hermes’ leather has a unique feel to it, I bet you that soon we will talk about the “Apple feel” when it comes to mass-produced leather products. I touched some leather bands and was extremely impressed: thin and supple, yet you could tell that the leather could take the abuse of running with the watch, the sweat and the dirt. It was sublime. And there are magnets that allow you to clasp and unclasp the bands. It might not mean anything to many, but for me these details are enough to overlook the software shortcomings that have started cropping up in Apple products.

AplWatchOver the past few months, there has been a lot of commentary about Apple’s entry into the fashion business. Much of the criticism comes from the fashion side of the table. Some (but not all) is justified. However, straps, bands and clasps are a key part of the watch experience, and yet we have seen little or no innovation around them. (Marc Newson made some fantastic straps for Ikepod, and now he works at Apple. There are some Apple straps that are remarkably similar to his creations.)

Sure, there are more exotic materials: crocodile leather or gold bands, for example. But with the exception of Milanese straps, I have not seen much innovation in terms of what is essentially the least technological part of the watch. Why hasn’t it been a priority? Mostly because, like old phone makers, the watch giants want to make money by making complex movements but overlook the fact that little details matter.

The New MacBook

While the Apple Watch is getting all the attention, it was the new MacBook that left me floored. Apple’s photos amazed me. The reviews have been less than stellar. But the device is more impressive in person. Is it underpowered? Yes. Does it lack ports? Yes. Is it expensive? Yes. Is it beautiful and amazing and futuristic? Yes, yes and yes! After making the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, it must take some imagination to come up with a device so devastatingly alluring and attractive that makes its big brothers look so middle-aged.

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While a lot of people are ordering the gold MacBooks, I fell hard for the Space Gray model, which is closer to the iPhone 5s Space Gray than the current iPhone 6 Gray. What got to me was the edge-to-edge 12-inch Retina Display. I like the way the little grill at the top looks. It is so thin and so light. The keyboard is pretty amazing: After two minutes of typing, I already knew I wanted one. It’s hard to say how this new MacBook will perform when I am writing emails (in Mail.app) or when I have about 25 odd tabs open in Safari. I am also not sure if it can handle Netflix video streams, but like the first MacBook Air from 2008, I want one. Thank goodness the Apple store didn’t have one! Otherwise my credit card would have taken an unnecessary dent.

The new MacBook illustrates Apple’s strength in hardware. I have often marveled at the company’s ability to innovate in ways that remain hidden from the human eye. Stacked batteries, the integration of chips and storage, and using newer technologies in interesting ways are what makes the company different from others. Apple spends a lot of energy (not to mention billions of dollars) developing new battery technologies. It also spends an incredible amount of resources on display technologies to make the batteries last longer. These are important areas for the company to focus, since display and battery technologies are also what will continue to make Apple exceptional in the business of phones and wearables.

Should and Must

In her original essay, Elle writes:

Should is how others want us to show up in the world. When we choose Should the journey is smooth, the risk is small. Must is different. Must is who we are, what we believe, and what we do when we are alone with our truest, most authentic self.

Apple has taken craftsmanship to an industrial scale. It is the only technology company to take an artisan’s approach to making its products, however limited their shelf life might be. And in a way Apple must do what it does to make beautiful hardware. It doesn’t have a choice but to obsess over these hardware details — seen and unseen.

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