Should, Must & Apple’s Little Details

It was one of those lazy, almost warm San Francisco weekends – blue skies with high clouds adding a 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 year later, a book.

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I am blown away by the emotional intensity of this book where words are enhanced by an 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/creative artist. It is an uplifting tome, that makes you question a lot about life and work.

Of course it was not just reading that

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did — 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 Apple Watch was launched, Apple had invited me to their 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 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 which review you watch or read, the software experience of Apple Watch is good, mediocre, or meh. No one has said that it is exceptional — but apparently these reviewers all might be chasing page views (no shit, these days it seems everything is about the page views.) John Gruber, whose opinions I trust, too is 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

The Apple store visit this weekend reaffirmed that the Apple Watch is an extremely well engineered product. Pretty much every model we could access (that is hold in our hands) was a glowing testimonial of Apple’s mastery of 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 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.

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What blew me away was the exceptional attention to the details. The way you could slide on and off the bands from the watch was smooth and slick. There wasn’t a need for any special tools — a tiny bit of pressure does the job of sliding the bands on and off. The sliding has the smoothness of silk 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 blown away — thin, supple and yet you could feel 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 one 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 around Apple and its entry into the fashion business. Much of the criticism comes from the fashion side of the table. Some (but not all) of it is justified. However, the question I ask these traditional watch makers — straps, bands and clasps are a key part of the watch experience and yet, we have seen little or no innovation around it. (Marc Newsom 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 — leathers from Crocodiles, Lizards and Ostriches or bands with gold or some other precious metal. 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 — and I appreciate that — but overlooking the fact that little details matter.

The New MacBook

While Apple Watch is getting all the attention, it was the new MacBook that left me floored. I was amazed by the photos that were put out by Apple. The reviews have been less than stellar. But the device is ever 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 having made 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 Grey model — which was closer to the iPhone 5s Space Gray vs 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 — two minutes of typing and I already knew I wanted one. It’s hard to say how this new MacBook will perform when I am doing 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. I was ready to buy one on the spot, but the Apple store didn’t really have one — good, otherwise my credit card would have taken an unnecessary dent.

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

In a way Apple must do whatever it does to make, beautiful hardware. It doesn’t have a choice but to obsesses over these hardware details — seen and unseen.