iPad Air: Apple's obsession with waif-like consumer electronics

Summary:The new iPad Air is an incredible technical achievement, but for who and what need is the industrial design of this device really addressing?

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Image: ZDNet; Apple

I have a confession to make. I bought an iPad Air over the weekend. A 128GB Wi-Fi model, in silver. I didn't even have to get out of bed to do it.

I set my alarm on my personal iPhone for 3am (ET) on Friday, and installed the Apple Store app on it.

When it woke me from my slumber, it took me perhaps a whole minute for me to click on the icon, select my device, my pickup store location, and to complete the purchase. A few minutes later I was back to dreaming about pizza and BBQ chicken.

I stopped by the busy Boca Raton, Florida store at 4pm on the way back from a business meeting in Miami and waited a whole 20 minutes for a blue-shirted expediter to go grab it from stock, which had my name already labelled on the box.

Whatever one can say about Apple, they make it incredibly easy to buy their products.

To be fair, I needed a new iPad because I sold my fourth-generation unit this last April, falsely assuming that a new model was going to be making an appearance shortly thereafter.  

As someone who writes about the mobile device industry quite a bit, I like having "one of everything" in my stable, including a few different Android tablets and of course, my Windows devices, which includes my Windows 8.1 touchscreen laptop, a Nokia Windows Phone, and a Microsoft Surface.

My first impressions when taking the device out of its box were of awe and concern. The iPad Air is even thinner and lighter than I thought it was going to be. So light and thin, in fact, that the device actually feels downright flimsy and delicate.

After carefully extracting it from the box and removing the packing material, I charged it and set it up, and put it back in the box for safe keeping.

The very first thing I did after doing that was to order an initial protective case for it, as well as contact the various case manufacturers I have relationships with to see what was available for review.

There is no way, no how, I am going to use this device without a protective hard case on it, and I strongly recommend anyone else who buys one of these things to do the same.

I also recommend you buy the AppleCare+ warranty plan at the time of purchase as well, particularly if you buy one of the expensive upper-end models like I did.

"It was only natural for us to hold up thinness and lightness as not just an unrealistic body standard for ourselves, but also project this very same unhealthy ideal onto our consumer products."

I'm concerned about the fact that the display glass, like the iPhone 5/5s, is extremely exposed to potential damage and there's nothing that elevates the outside edges of the bezel above the glass in the event of a side impact or the product falling face-down.

Without a protective case, you're pretty much guaranteed to shatter that screen with your first "whoops" moment, given how incredibly slippery the device is in the first place.

There's no question that the iPad Air is an impressive technical achievement for Apple, to be able to reduce that much weight and girth from the previous generation device while increasing performance and retaining battery life.

For that, I commend the company highly.

But I have to ask myself, for who exactly are they targeting with this thin-obsessive industrial design? And what purpose does it serve?

Certainly, I understand why they altered the form factor by reducing the bezel width — by a whopping 44 percent, according to Apple — in order to have design parity with the iPad mini and to make the device's surface area smaller while retaining screen size.

But they could have kept the device nearly the same weight as the previous generation and likely doubled the battery life while using the same space-saving techniques employed in the Air, such as with the display manufacturing process.

It's not like the iPad 4 was a heavy device to begin with. The previous generation weighed 662 grams, the iPad Air weighs just 478 grams. 

The reason why Apple is doing this is because as a culture, America and most of the western world is obsessed with the idea of "thin" and "light" to an almost unhealthy degree. They are producing precisely what the buying public wants, even if it compromises the overall durability of the design.

I don't want to single out Apple here. The same design aesthetic and insane pursuit of thinness and lightness to the point of being flimsy and  becoming landfill in short order  can be applied to the Android device manufacturers as well. 

It is worth mentioning that the PC/convertible tablet world, which includes the Microsoft Surface as well as products from OEMs such as Lenovo, HP and Dell, have a more of a business and enterprise bent in terms of aesthetics rather than one which is almost entirely based on consumer design leanings and preference.

They've taken a different and arguably much more practical approach to the industrial design of their products, and are facing the realities of their actual intended usage, which is getting real work done.

They may not go well with the cool kids or are as light as a feather, but between my iPad Air and my Surface, I know exactly which one I'm depending on for my next overnight business trip.

But I digress.

Our collective obsession with thin and light as the ideal design aesthetic started in the world of fashion, with a trend going back as much as 50 years ago, starting the early 1960's.

Runway models and our fantasy pin-ups have departed from the beautiful, curved Rubenesque bombshells of the 1940s and 1950s, only to slim down to the distorted "hourglass" of the 1960s, having gotten thinner and thinner, to the point where the "waif look" that was pioneered by supermodel Kate Moss in the 1990s became the predominant image and archetype that every single fashion publication still emulates even today.

It is an unrealistic as well as an unhealthy view of what body image should be. And it exists as a very stark contrast to what the majority of American men and women actually look like. Paradoxically, we now have a society of obese people that secretly desire to be waifs.

Sadly, this insane mindset has even taken a toll on yours truly. After all, if a fat, 44-year-old computer dork can't fit into a Speedo without appearing grotesque or can ever hope to look like an Adonis, at least my tablet or my laptop can be svelte.

It was only natural for us to hold up thinness and lightness as not just an unrealistic body standard for ourselves, but also project this very same unhealthy ideal onto our consumer products.

And Apple has tapped into this ideal, to the tune of turning itself into a 500-billion-dollar company in the process.

Is our obsession with thin and light harmful to ourselves, and to the overall durability of our consumer products? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: iPad, Apple, Smartphones, Tablets

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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