When Apple (or Anyone Else) Really Gets a Product Right
Being British, I have a story about tea. It goes like this: For my entire life, it had tasted wrong. Not bad, exactly, but not quite right. I tried all different kinds, and just about every brand I could find. I drank it without milk which made it taste a little better1, and sometimes added lemon which pushed it a little more in the right direction. But still: tea tasted wrong and I had no idea why. Then one evening, my flatmate at the time asked me if I’d like a cup. I politely declined, explaining that it would make it hard for me to sleep. She replied that it was okay, she had caffeine free tea called Rooibos, from South Africa. So, a few minutes later, she handed me a cup of tea, and it tasted right2.
Why did I just tell you a story about tea? What does that have to do with Apple? Well, the fact is that I had a very similar feeling the first time I used a Mac in earnest. Then it happened again with the iPhone. It’s not just Apple products, mind you. The physics of a Mario game and the feel in the hand of an X-Box 360 controller also gave me this feeling. Recently, though, I haven’t had this “Oh, this is right” feeling quite so much. I can only think of two examples, and they’re so small that they probably qualify as “features” more so than “products”.
When Apple Pay first appeared it was a way of paying with your phone. You know, that feature which Android phones had had for years. But Google (my employer) had utterly failed to capitalise on this or make any headway with it.
The first thing which physical Apple Pay on the iPhone got right was putting the NFC chip in the top of the phone, rather than the middle. This meant that you could just tap the reader rather than having to awkwardly press your entire phone against it. Next: Touch ID makes authentication very simple. No awkwardly entering your PIN on a phone which is being presented to the whole room. Having it on the Apple Watch is also a nice touch3.
None of that is what I’m talking about, though. I basically never use physical Apple Pay. I find it too awkward. A contactless card is simpler to handle by far. Taking it out indicates to a cashier that you intend to pay by card. Taking out your phone does not do this.
No, what I’m talking about is in app Apple Pay. My favourite example is the food delivery app Just Eat. Suddenly, you don’t need an account, or to hand your card details over to the service. You just hit pay, choose the delivery address4, give it your fingerprint and your food is on the way.
Even slicker is that this can also work when you’re not even directly using your phone. EasyJet has Apple Pay as a payment option on the web. Select it and your phone lights up and asks for your fingerprint. Press down your thumb (or whatever) and you’ve paid for your flights. It’s utterly seamless.
Apple’s Airpod headphones are far from perfect. They lack (functional) physical controls, have middling sound quality comparable to their wired sibling, and look a bit odd in your ears5.
So why are they here? Again: seamlessness. I’ve never owned a pair of headphones, or possibly even any other item of technology, which just works the way the Airpods do.
You know how painful pairing bluetooth headphones can be? You just open the Airpod case next to your iPhone, tap a button, and you’re done.
You know how awkward it can be to move your headphones between different devices? If it’s an Apple device (which is signed into the same iCloud account as your iPhone), it’s already paired with your Airpods.
You know that awkward moment when someone starts talking to you and you have take off your headphones whilst hunting for the pause button? Or just leave your music running? Taking an Airpod out pauses your audio.
They’re tiny though, which makes them very easy to lose and means they don’t have a stellar battery life, right? That’s okay, they come with a neat and pleasingly magnetic case which keeps them safe and charges them on the go.
As an extra bonus convenience they charge via lightning, so I was able to buy this tidy dock and hide the wires. I’ve wanted a set of headphones which I could just slap into a charging dock when I get home for years.
I don’t think Apple is the only company which can do this. In fact it’s a little sad that these are the Apple products I’m talking about so effusively. Amazon is quite close with the Echo. I haven’t gotten my hands on one yet, but it seems Nintendo is edging into this territory with the Switch6.
I’m quite sure that Microsoft, Sony, Fuji or some other company has produced wonderful things which I just haven’t used. There’s no need to limit it to technology either. It might be about finding the right pen or notebook. I might be about finding the perfect barbecue joint.
I also think that my employer has something very special on the horizon, which might fall into this category. Something made entirely in house. Google all the way through. Not the result of acquiring (and then ruining) an existing startup, or trying to muscle in on an existing business model. Unfortunately I can’t talk about it yet, though. When I can, I will.
It also led to a lot of cups of tea being thrown away after the profferer reflexively added milk. ↩
Insofar as I’m aware, I’d never tasted Rooibos before that day. That clearly can’t be the case though, and I’m inclined to suspect that my mother gave it to me when I was a baby. According to my flatmate, giving cold rooibos to babies is standard operating procedure in South Africa. My mum does drink it, and did back then too, but doesn’t specifically remember giving it to me. ↩
Even if it is (probably) on the wrong side of your body for using London public transport. You have to awkwardly reach across yourself. But if you’re feeling jazzy you can follow it up with a quick pirouette. ↩
Disclaimer: this only really works as described when delivering to one of your registered addresses. ↩
I can’t unhear the phrase “Something About Mary headphones.” ↩
Don’t get me wrong. I love my 3DS. I seem to be one of the few people who leaves the 3D effect on at all times. It’s wonderfully portable, the controls are a joy to use, and the dual screens really add something in games like Fire Emblem: Awakening. But when you’re not in an actual game and need to use the OS itself, or (shudder) the eShop… nope. Nope nope nope. ↩