Sure, it’s pretty annoying that Apple’s newest iPhones — the 7 and 7 Plus, which were unveiled in San Francisco on Wednesday and will start shipping to customers on Sept. 16 — will not include a port for plugging in standard earbuds. But you’ll get used to it.
The absence of a jack is far from the worst shortcoming in Apple’s latest product launch. Instead, it’s a symptom of a deeper issue with the new iPhones, part of a problem that afflicts much of the company’s product lineup: Apple’s aesthetics have grown stale.
Apple has squandered its once-commanding lead in hardware and software design. Though the new iPhones include several new features, including water resistance and upgraded cameras, they look pretty much the same as the old ones. The new Apple Watch does too. And as competitors have borrowed and even begun to surpass Apple’s best designs, what was iconic about the company’s phones, computers, tablets and other products has come to seem generic.
This is a subjective assessment, and it’s one that Apple rebuts. The company says it does not change its designs just for the sake of change; the current iPhone design, which debuted in 2014, has sold hundreds of millions of units, so why mess with success? In a video accompanying the iPhone 7 unveiling on Wednesday, Jonathan Ive, Apple’s design chief, called the device the “most deliberate evolution” of its design vision for the smartphone.
Yet there are signs that my critique of Apple’s designs are shared by others. Industrial designers and tech critics used to swoon over Apple’s latest hardware; nowadays you witness less swooning and more bemusement.
Last year, Apple put out a battery case that looked comically pregnant — “a design embarrassment,” said The Verge — and a rechargeable mouse with the charging port on the bottom, meaning you have to turn it over to charge it. And the remote control for Apple TV violated the first rule of TV remote design: Don’t make it symmetrical, so people can figure out which button is which in the dark. (One tip: Put a rubber band on the bottom, so you can quickly figure out which end is up.)
Then there’s software interface design. The Apple Watch, also released last year, looked fine (and some of its wristbands were truly stunning), but its user interface was so puzzling and took so long to learn that Apple was forced to go back to the drawing board. In a new update to be introduced soon, the watch’s interface has been substantially simplified.
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It’s the same story for Apple Music. After the streaming service was widely panned for its confusing array of options, Apple had to completely redesign it this year.
It’s not just that a few new Apple products have been plagued with design flaws. The bigger problem is an absence of delight. I recently checked in with several tech-pundit friends for their assessment of Apple’s aesthetic choices. “What was the last Apple design that really dazzled you?” I asked.
There was a small chorus of support for the MacBook, the beautifully tiny (if functionally flawed) laptop that Apple released last year. But most respondents were split between the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 5 — two daring smartphone designs that were instantly recognized as surpassing anything else on the market.
The iPhone 5, in particular, was a jewel; to me, its flat sides, chamfered edges and remarkable build quality suggested something miraculous, as if Mr. Ive had been divinely inspired in his locked white room. But the iPhone 4 and iPhone 5 were released in 2010 and 2012. If you have to reach back to the last presidential election to find an Apple design that really caught your eye, there’s something amiss.
Apple’s design difficulties prompt two questions: How bad is this problem? And how can Apple solve it?
To the first: It’s not acute, but it is urgent. Despite a slowdown in growth, Apple is still by far the most profitable consumer electronics company in the world. Consumer satisfaction surveys show that customers love its products. And even if the tech cognoscenti no longer rave about Apple’s designs, there’s little sign that their griping has affected sales.
Despite criticism, Apple Music also signed up 17 million subscribers in about a year. Apple doesn’t release sales numbers for the watch, but many analysts believe that sales have been brisk, and customer-satisfaction surveys are through the roof. And the iPhone has proved remarkably durable; as I argued last year, the iPhone’s continuing dominance is the closest bet in tech to a sure thing.
The real danger is in Apple’s long-term reputation. Much of Apple’s brand is built on design and on a sense that everything it delivers is a gift from the vanguard.
Two years ago, the designer Khoi Vinh, a former design director for The New York Times who now works at Adobe, summed up Apple’s design prowess this way: “If there’s a single thread that runs through nearly every piece of Apple hardware, it’s conviction, the sense that its designers believed with every fiber of their being that the form factor they delivered was the result of countless correct choices that, in totality, add up to the best and only choice for giving shape to that particular product.”
But in assessing the iPhone 6, then new, Mr. Vinh felt Apple had gone astray. Whereas the iPhone 5 had sharp, sophisticated lines that set it apart from everything else, “the iPhone 6’s form seems uninspired, harkening back to the dated-looking forms of the original iPhone, and barely managing to distinguish itself from the countless other phones that have since aped that look,” he wrote.
That was in 2014. Now, two years later, we still have the same basic iPhone design. For years, Apple has released a redesigned iPhone every other year, but now we’re going to go three years without a new iPhone look.
And while Apple has slowed its design cadence, its rivals have sped up. Last year Samsung remade its lineup of Galaxy smartphones in a new glass-and-metal design that looked practically identical to the iPhone. Then it went further. Over the course of a few months, Samsung put out several design refinements, culminating in the Note 7, a big phone that has been universally praised by critics. With its curved sides and edge-to-edge display, the Note 7 pulls off a neat trick: Though it is physically smaller than Apple’s big phone, it actually has a larger screen. So thanks to clever design, you get more from a smaller thing — exactly the sort of advance we once looked to Apple for.
An important caveat: Samsung’s software is still bloated, and its reputation for overall build quality took a hit when it announced last week that it would recall and replace the Note 7 because of a battery defect that caused spontaneous explosions. To the extent that making a device that doesn’t explode suggests design expertise, Apple is still ahead of Samsung.
But the setbacks from Apple’s rivals aren’t likely to last. Apple can’t afford to rest on its past successes for long.