I am writing this column on my new 17-inch Apple MacBook Pro–and oh, man, it’s a beautiful machine.
I have owned this model of computer before. I used my old MacBook Pro until the other day; but sadly, foreign travel dented its aluminum casing, dulled all its surfaces with dust and oil, and reduced its screen to flickering fog–and as it ceased to be new, I became insensible to its virtues. But this machine is box-fresh, and novelty has rekindled my crush. (You can see my actual laptop on this page of the photo essay, “Objects of Desire”, where its design is praised as iconic.)
I love my MacBook Pro because its broad but slim body seems luxuriously solid yet also gracefully light. I love how the resistance subtly increases when I press a key, flattering my touch. I love the crisp definition of the graphics on its large, luminous screen. Most of all, I love how all my Macintosh software shares an elegant iconography and navigation scheme, and how all my Apple hardware works together uncomplainingly. The 17-inch MacBook Pro, in the famous phrase of Steve Jobs, Apple’s founder and chief executive, is “insanely great.”
The software application I am using is Microsoft Word. It is not beautiful. Above this document is a toolbar with more than 30 icons, many of whose meanings escape me. Above the toolbar are 12 pull-down menus, each with countless functions, and although I have been using Word as my principal professional tool for more than 13 years, I still don’t know which functions can be found in which menus, because there are too many functions, arranged with too little logic. Everywhere, there are pullulating features, obscure jargon, and confusing organization.
What makes a machine beautiful? In this issue of Technology Review, we ask what makes for good industrial and interactive design in technology products. Editing these stories, and thinking about artifacts as different as the MacBook Pro and Word, has suggested some tentative answers to me.
One common answer is that technology design should be simple. Certainly, thoughtful designers disdain “feature bloat,” in which business managers add more and more features to products in order to appeal to more markets. In “Different”, Daniel Turner’s account of why Apple’s products are so reliably well designed, Don Norman, who was vice president of advanced technology at Apple, says feature bloat is difficult to resist: “The hardest part of design … is keeping features out.” But keeping it simple can create the Palm, the BlackBerry, or the iPod.