Apple’s Obsession With Simplicity Is a Monkey’s Paw

You take the good with the bad

Key Takeaways

  • This week’s AirPod firmware update is impossible to install manually.
  • The Apple Pencil is Apple design at its best.
  • Sometimes minimalism goes too far.
man in blue/white striped shirt and wearing AirPods

Ayotunde Ojo / Unsplash

You can’t update the firmware on AirPods, the Apple Pencil, or a MagSafe charger, but they still get updates, whether you want them or not.

This is such a totally Apple move—technology that doesn’t seem like technology. These devices are almost like appliances. If all goes well, they just work. Like a light switch or a fixed-line telephone, you never have to think about whether it will do its job. This week, there’s a new firmware update for the AirPods, but the only way to install it is to cross your fingers and wait. The obsession with simplicity, which has been in Apple’s DNA since the original Mac in 1984, isn’t always a good thing.

"Apple's minimalist design choices are especially evident in their premium hardware, but most dominant tech companies today know that it's strategically important to reduce friction in their customer experiences," tech consultant and wearable tech expert David Pring-Mill told Lifewire via email.

It Just Works™

Apple’s product philosophy is pretty easy to follow. Its computers and accessories should be beautifully designed, they should be the best at what they do (for Apple’s definition of best), and easy to use. 

Today, we’re looking at the last two, which are intertwined. Often, Apple leaves popular features out because it doesn’t think they’ll make the experience better. A great example is touchscreens for Macs. They don’t have them and, if you believe the official line, never will. Does this make Macs better? Maybe, because the Mac’s UI is really not suited to touch. But maybe not, because who hasn’t reached up to their MacBook’s screen to tap a link?

tip of a white pen on a white/gray background

Joan Tran / Unsplash

One of Apple’s definitions of "better" is often "simpler." In the case of the Apple Pencil, everything lines up. It has no moving parts, no blinking LEDs, not even a port for charging. If you didn’t know better, you could assume that it was just a lump of plastic, just like all those dumb styluses we used to use.

But it’s a beautifully complex machine, sensing motion, tilt angle, and pressure. It charges when you stick it magnetically to the edge of an iPad, and it connects automatically to that iPad at the same time. This does require some education—the Pencil can be controlled by tapping on it, for example, but Apple is pretty good at that, too.

"Pinch to zoom seems intuitive and simple now, but it was not when it was introduced," mobile app designer Trevor Doerksen told Lifewire via email. 

Simple Is Not Always Good

But that simplicity can often be a hindrance. In Apple’s apps, for example, core functionality is often hidden behind several layers of menus. To mark an email as unread on the iPhone or iPad, you must long-press the email to get a menu, then tap Mark > Mark as Unread. And don’t get me started on Pages or Logic Pro. I call this "junk-drawer minimalism," because it fakes simplicity by just hiding most of the features, instead of sweating to integrate them in an elegant way. 

"Apple's minimalist design choices are especially evident in their premium hardware... "

The other downside of Apple’s drive to simplicity can be seen in its hardware over the last half decade. We got the Apple Pencil and the incredible iPad Pro, but we also got MacBook Pros with only a few USB ports for expansion, and a Touch Bar instead of a row of function keys, even though there’s space for keys and a touch strip. 

Another downside of a product as seemingly simple as the Apple Pencil is it’s utterly impossible to repair. To get to the battery and other parts, you’d have to cut the thing open. This design makes it tough, but it also makes it disposable, which is bad news for the environment, and for the folks who have to buy a replacement for their $129 pencil. 

Reversal

Perhaps the balance is shifting back the other way. The latest MacBook Pros have a full complement of ports and jacks on their sides, use MagSafe for charging, and are thicker and more voluminous than their predecessors. This all counts as more complex, but in a way it’s simpler. You just have to carry your MacBook, and nothing else. No dongles for connecting to monitors or projectors. No USB SD card reader. 

The ideal would be a polar approach. MacBook Airs and Apple Pencils could remain light, simple, and inscrutable, while the Pro machines could continue to grow. That could keep everyone happy, even Apple.

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