Has Apple design lost the plot?

For years Apple has been leading the consumer electronics industry around by its design nose. When Apple unveiled the original iMac, immediately our digital accessories started turning transparent teal. When they unveiled the Titanium PowerBooks, all of our hard drives and DVD players were encased in brushed metal (although even at Apple the titanium didn’t last long, replaced after one generation by aluminum). And, of course, there’s the iPod. From the second the first generation (1G) was shown, everything in our lives having to do with hand-held technology turned white with rounded beautifully rounded edges. So for the recent “Showtime” announcements by Steve Jobs, I was holding on to my chair reading real-time bloggers describe the new product innovations, excepting to be blown away by the new groundbreaking designs. But I wasn’t.

Steve announced the new 2G iPod nano and it looks, well, just like the iPod Mini that the 1G replaced. The new MacPro looks just like the PowerMac G5 it replaces, and the name is stupid. And then there’s the new “iTV set-top box for your digital lifestyle”. It looks just like, and I mean just like, a Mac Mini. So what’s going on out there in Cupertino?

I have a theory. OK, two actually. The first one is kind of sad really, and signals the demise of Apple as the global leader in industrial design. It goes like this:

Apple is spending so much time and money on new products and transitioning to Intel and negotiating with Hollywood studios over movie download rights that it has just plain pushed design to the back seat. Content to be cutting edge two years ago, they are resting on their laurels, hoping that their (small) technological advances and overhyped product introductions will keep people buying their products. This is clearly a dangerous philososophy to have, as most people are tired of everyone having the same MP3 player and the same white earbuds and quite honestly, a brighter screen on the video iPod nobody really watches video on for a modest $350 isn’t going to get anybody to upgrade. Nor is the Nano that looks like the Mini that your sister got for Christmas in 2004. Sure it doesn’t scratch, but it isn’t really cool either, even in black. With this thinking, Apple will soon be going in reverse (like it did with the new old-look Nano) and start a trend of evolutionary, rather than revolutionary design. Other than the tidy looking keyboard on the new MacBooks, I can’t think of anything special coming out of their design department since the first generation Nano.

But all hope is not lost, I have a second theory.

Theory number two is distinctly happier. Apple needed to get all of their “current” models updated in a short timeline in order to satisfy the MacIntel doubters. They’ve done that. But the design department has been working around the clock for the last two years on truly revolutionizing the design of everything Apple makes. Starting with the iPhone in December or January (yeah, you know it’s coming), Apple will redesign all of its products in the next year in a way that will stun everyone. The new designs will feature shapes you’d never expect and colors you’ve never seen and textures you won’t believe. They’ve been making everything on the cheap for a couple of years, cutting corners on design to save money, so they can blow up the entire market and invade your living room with designs that will define cool until the end of the decade.

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

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