Like many this morning, my first reaction to Apple’s Smart Battery Case was … what the heck? Albeit not expressed in those exact words. Seth tweeted that it seemed to be evidence that Jony Ive has left the building.
My colleague Jeremy has addressed the battery case specifically, but I think there’s a broader issue here. Apple claims to sweat the details when it comes to the design of its devices, and – a few grumbles aside – I think that’s a legitimate claim on the aesthetic front. It does go to obsessive lengths when it comes to making its devices as visually pleasing as possible. One part of that obsession is making iPhones as thin as it can.
But, to my mind, the company has an almost schizophrenic attitude here. It goes to all that trouble to make the phones as slim and sleek as humanly possible, yet it knows full well that the first thing the vast majority of owners do when they take delivery is to slip the phone into a case. Those cases substantially increase the thickness, and hide the design.
Which brings us to problem two …
Hiding the phone away inside a case would matter less if Apple offered gorgeous iPhone cases that look every bit as great as the iPhone. But it doesn’t – not remotely. The battery case may be a particularly ugly example, but none of Apple’s cases come anywhere close to matching the design aesthetic of the phone itself.
The best I can honestly say about Apple’s Silicone Case is that it’s reasonably inoffensive. But seriously, imagine that the Silicone Case was part of the shell of the phone instead of an ‘optional’ extra that is – for most people – anything but optional. Would we praise the design of an iPhone that looks like this?
A rubberized plastic phone. A phone with a crude-looking cutout for the camera, with a non-color-matched aperture. A phone whose shell just kind of … stops at the bottom, where a separate, interior shell becomes visible. A phone that has two rubber buttons and another cut-out in the shell to expose a non-matching switch.
An iPhone designed to look like this would be laughable. And yet Apple seems to think it’s perfectly fine that, for huge numbers of its customers, that’s exactly what the iPhone does look like, almost all of the time. Because a huge proportion of iPhone owners put it inside such a case on day one and only remove it when they sell it – labelled ‘mint’ because the actual phone has never seen the light of day.
Apple’s Leather Case is, to me, a more pleasing material, but it still has all the issues I list above.
Apple does feature one case on its website that at least exposes the design of the iPhone: the Power Support Air Jacket. But we have the odd-shaped camera/flash aperture, and what you feel in your hand is not a sleek, 7.3mm thin piece of high-grade aluminum, but an 8.3mm thick piece of plastic.
Now, iPhone cases are a matter of taste, I know. Some of you may really like the Silicone Case. But I suspect even you’d have to agree that it hardly looks factory-fitted, and I would be surprised if any of you would venture as far as to describe it as beautiful.
I’m also not saying there are no beautiful cases offered on Apple’s website, incidentally.
Just that none of them are designed by Apple.
Apple boasts that it is all about an integrated experience, that iDevices work so well because they seamlessly blend hardware and software. So why are there no Jony Ive-designed cases that seamlessly blend with the phone? Where both phone shell and case are designed together such that the end result looks like a single, beautiful object – not like a carefully-crafted device with some plastic or leather thrown around it like an afterthought?
Which brings us to the issue of why we need a case at all? Why some feel the need to enclose their iPhone inside military-spec protection?
iPhones have got tougher over the years. The nonsense of Bendgate aside (wow, a metal object will bend if you abuse it to a ridiculous degree), the aluminum is tougher. The glass is stronger. Some of the drop test results are impressive.
Yet whether it’s a question of materials or education, the vast majority of iPhone owners consider it sufficiently fragile that they see a case as a necessary purchase.
I fully accept, of course, that Apple cannot make an iPhone indestructible – at least, not without also making it as ugly as hell. But with all its materials expertise, I can’t help thinking that reaching a compromise point where it would survive most everyday slips and knocks without sustaining visible damage ought to be an achievable goal. To create something sufficiently robust that the majority of owners would be happy to use it without a case.
But, some will object, if you make an iPhone stronger, you also make it thicker and heavier. Some will say that even slight compromise is too much. This is a recurring topic in the comments here where battery-life is concerned, some wanting Apple to make the iPhone slightly thicker to boost the battery capacity, others arguing that it meets their needs, and anyone who wants longer life can buy a battery case. Now even an official Apple one.
So here’s a further thought. Apple will never in a million years permit the kind of customization offered by something like Motorola with its Moto Maker program, letting buyers choose between ten different soft-grip plastic backs, four woods and four leathers – to say nothing of different fronts and accent colors. But what if it offered a choice of two shells?
One shell as slim and lightweight as humanly possible. The other just as beautifully designed, but offering greater resistance to everyday knocks. Again, I stress I’m not talking about turning it into a tank, merely reaching the level where most people would feel comfortable using it without a case.
Cases would still be available for those who really want them, but we’d have a reversal of the present situation: one where a minority opt for a case, but the majority feel comfortable enjoying the naked phone in all its Ive-designed glory.