Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Another Rule of Thumb for “Getting” Apple

In yesterday’s commentary on Ken Segall’s article about understanding Apple, I noted that…

Apple’s success is defined by patience. The Watch is already an incredible product and it’s just a 1.0, with plenty of low-hanging fruit ready for picking. Apple Pay is way better than any of its competitors, primarily because Apple waited until they locked down major banks and credit card providers and had a brilliant interaction model.

The first rule of understanding Apple: patience, patience, patience.

The second rule? When faced by an obstacle so large that most of their competitors would back down, Apple takes it on head-first. Yesterday’s post about their substantially increased R&D spend is evidence of this, but naysayers’ attitudes have persisted for a long time. Remember the “MacBook Brick” rumours from many years ago?

Apparently, Apple has created a brand-new process to sculpt casings for products out of aircraft-grade aluminum, using a system that carves the pieces out of a single block of metal using “3D lasers” and water-jet cutting. The new technique will supposedly allow for seamless components which require no bending or folding, won’t use screws to join together, are ultra-light but also “super strong,” and will enable the company to rapidly prototype and produce new designs.

Industrial designers were skeptical. Adam Richardson of Frog Design thought this process was unlikely as described:

On a large product like a laptop this would typically result in a massive amount of waste (so kiss your green credentials goodbye). And the notion that this is somehow cheaper than stamping thin sheets or molding plastic is completely wrong – it’s much more expensive.

[…]

But given the complexity of the components that need to get tightly mounted inside a laptop casing, and the number of ports and so on that need to be exposed to the outside, it’s unlikely that it will literally be a hollowed out block of aluminum.

Friends of Cult of Mac’s Pete Mortensen thought it was impossible “in this lifetime”:

I’ve been talking with other industrial designers about this issue, and they all agree that the reasoning behind the current Brick rumor doesn’t add up. One friend of mine guessed it would add up to $50 in manufacturing costs and might not be any stronger or lighter than more traditional manufacturing approaches.

Does Apple have a game-changing laptop in the wings that will reinvent the MacBook and MacBook Pro design language? For their sake, they’d better. Will it be milled from a single block of aluminum? Not in this lifetime.

As it turned out, the rumours were almost entirely accurate. The only part of the case of any unibody MacBook that is held on with screws is the bottom panel. But Apple did, indeed, invest millions of dollars in state-of-the-art equipment and manufacturing techniques that have radically changed the limits of what they can do with their notebooks from a hardware perspective. There’s no way the new MacBook would exist in anything like its current form factor if the case relied upon a pre-unibody structure.

Rule number two: Apple measures their return on investment in years, not months.