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

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?

(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


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience 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.

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  • For some electronic stuff, thin and light is a "don't care", but…..

    …for a handheld unit like a tablet, thin and light is an important feature. What's one of the most often-heard complaints about the Surface Pro (besides price)? That it's too thick and heavy.
    • On the flip side...

      ... The argument I'm hearing more lately is that if Apple would spend less time taking stuff out of their products and more time putting things into them, (Like NFC, USB Ports, a File System, Miracast, Keyboard Covers, Optical Image Stabilized Cameras, Precision Digitizer Stylus, 18 Hour Battery Life, etc)...then their products wouldn't have to be companion only devices.
      • Excellent point, gomigomijunk

        I read the strongly worded ultimatums laid down in this comment stream, insisting that a tablet MUST be thin and light... and I wonder, "Wow, just how dainty are these people?!"

        I use my iPad 2 daily, standing up much of the time and have never once thought it was too heavy, especially compared to the books and notebooks I used to have to carry.

        Besides, where is the sense in buying such a delicate gadget, then making it heavier and thicker than an iPad 2 with protective cases?

        Durability matters.

        It doesn't matter how thin and light a gadget is if it doesn't work anymore.
        • Clarification...

          I meant to write where is the sense in buying a thin and light iPad Air, then making it thick and heavy with protective casing?

          My problem is I desperately want the A7 processor, but I can only get it by getting an iPad Mini which I'm not sure is big enough, or by getting an iPad Air which I'm pretty sure isn't durable enough.

          I feel completely left out of Apple's current customer focus.
      • Re: less time taking stuff out of their products

        If you followed the explanations Apple gave about how they designed the iPhone etc, you will notice that they paid more attention what to remove, than what to add. Apparently, this has been successful strategy.
        Why you think they should reverse it now?

        If you want a mobile Frankenstein, there will be always someone to sell you one.
    • Apple = rotten company, don't give them a penny

      please don’t support such a rotten company like Apple, don’t give them a penny and the world becomes better ;)


      + eBook price fixing robbery by Apple
      • Yes, but...

        Tim Cook has also come out in favor of the ENDA, which is a good thing
        • Yes, but..

          Tim Cook sucks. In more than one way.
          Denny Fry
      • I will now buy more Apple products, just to piss you off.

        I will buy a new iPad Air, a new iPhone 5S, a MacBook Air, and a new 27-inch iMac tomorrow. You may commence grinding your teeth to stumps, anywherehome.
        • nicely limited person

          no, just know that there is a lot of people responsible for this rotten state
          how is it to be a part of evil, tell us :)
          • EVIL!

            Calm down, dude, nobody is being evil by supporting Apple. :|
            Michael Alan Goff
        • I'm sure you will

          And, please post the receipts so we know you're serious. We wouldn't want to think you're "full of it!".
    • Thin and light

      Well, I own the iPad 4 and I don't find it to be too heavy to handle. If I really want thin and light, I'd go with the new iPad Mini anyway.
      • iPad Mini

        Actually, I hope they put the iPad Mini on the same diet that the larger iPad was put on, as I found it surprisingly heavy for its size.
    • Thin and light are big features.

      When you plan to carry a device with you everywhere, thin and light are very desirable traits. It's two of the big three, with the third being long battery life. This said, there is a point of diminishing returns on thin and light. At some point, thin and light becomes flimsy and fragile. Then, it's a negative, not a positive. I think Apple is treading dangerously close to that fine line with this latest iPad release. I truly hope they stop with the thinner lighter path and instead increase battery life with the same form factor.

      (And for Pete's sake, put a vastly better camera on the iPad. Composing shots is so easy on the larger screen, yet the photos the iPad takes are crap.)
  • Weight is huge in a tablet that you actually hold

    You hold the thing for hours, at least in my case, weight is probably one of the the most important things in how I use my tablet, there is no way I am going to read a PDF in a fat heavy tablet for hours.
  • Tablets should be light

    I think tablets need to be light. Most don't use them like Microsoft claims with the Surface. People hold them in one hand. After all you need one hand free to input by way of touch.
    Its great that the author is a true Apple fan who gladly refreshes his iPad frequently. Apple wants you to do that you know. That's why these incremental design improvements are added slowly. I don't think many Apple fans truly know how well Apple manipulates them into a frequent upgrade cycle. Truly brilliant on Apple's part.
    • True Apple fan?

      Jason also wrote this: "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."
      And to show you how big a fan he is, he also wrote this: "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." I don't think he was referring to the iPad with that statement. He sounded more realistic to me, than an Apple fanboy.
  • Disagree

    I must disagree on several points. The iPad Air is neither flimsy nor incredibly slippery. The side bezel is narrower to make the device easier to hold. Yet the excellent battery life of previous models was maintained--which is quite good enough, don't you think?

    And oh, if only people sought figures like the "beautiful, curved Rubenesque bombshells of the 1940s." Much of the general public today seems to strive for obesity.
    • thin & obese

      The culture idealizes a figure that almost no one can achieve without 24/7 dedication. Thus, almost everyone fails horribly to achieve the ideal. Having failed, they don't really see much difference between the curvy, properly proportioned 20-25% BF female // 14-18% BF male; and the completely obese. After all, if you don't sport a six-pack, then you're fat, and if you're fat, you might as well enjoy that bowl of icecream with the extra scoop, no?

      Tablets, not being human, are different; apple's use case is Bob blobbing on the sofa, holding the tablet in one hand watching lol-cats. This doesn't require great durability and toughness, it requires lightness; which the tablet delivers. For someone that wants to periodically drop the tablet on the rocks, or throw it, or use it while being pulverized by vibrations in an offroad vehicle; maybe something tougher and heavier would be appropriate. Then again, a heavy defender case like otterbox makes, takes the little runway models and clads them in powered plate armor, ready to charge forth into the fray.