Most Read Columns of 2013: Apple Turns Technology Into Art

by Ben Bajarin   |   December 24th, 2013

During this holiday week, we wanted to re-showcase some of the most read columns of 2013. Whether you read them before or are seeing them for the first time, enjoy some of the most read columns of our site from the past year.

As I was reflecting on my first experience with the new iPad and its retina display I was intrigued with a thought. There has always been something about the iPhone’s retina display and now with the iPad’s display that has me mesmerized. When I first saw the new iPad and the screen at Apple’s event I couldn’t stop looking at it. Even today I sometimes just turn it on to look at it and shake my head in disbelief.

The thought that I was intrigued by is how the visual appeal of Apple’s devices, and in this case of the screen, causes us to be so emotionally attached to them. Even this NY Times article in September of last year points out that consumers do actually love their iPhones. I believe this affect however as everything to do with the visually appealing experience with Apple products.

In a TIME column I wrote last year, I pointed out that Apple’s desire to create products that are at the intersection of liberal arts and technology drives them to create technology products that are in essence art. Apple turns technology into art we can use. Apple exhibits an unparalleled focus in the technology industry to design some of the most visually appealing hardware in all of computing. This focus of creating objects of desire is one part of many that encompass the Apple experience. That experience, the visual and emotional experience tied to Apple products creates an emotional response in consumers of Apple products that create as much passion around a brand as I have ever seen.

The Most Passionate Community

I would challenge you to find a more passionate community anywhere in computing. I have attended many industry conferences and trade shows and the Macworld’s where Steve Jobs spoke had a level of energy associated with them that I am yet to encounter anywhere else in this industry.

The experience around Apple products is what I think many who compete with Apple take for granted and simply don’t understand. I’ve said often at industry talks I have given that consumers don’t buy products they buy experiences and that is what Apple delivers.

Consumers in droves are discovering what the hard core long time Apple community has known since the beginning and are converting in droves buying iPads, iPhones, and even Macs. It all leads with the visual experience and beautiful and attractive hardware. Believe it or not, however, beautifully designed things are easier to use.

What is Beautiful is Usable

In 2000 a scientist from Israel named Noam Tractinsky, wrote a book called “What is Beautiful is Usable.” He started with a theory and built the scientific evidence to back it up. To quote his report on the subject:

two Japanese researchers, Masaaki Kurosu and Kaori Kashimura1, claimed just that. They developed two forms of automated teller machines, the ATM machines that allow us to get money and do simple banking tasks any time of the day or night. Both forms were identical in function, the number of buttons, and how they worked, but one had the buttons and screens arranged attractively, the other unattractively. Surprise! The Japanese found that the attractive ones were easier to use.

Noam himself then wanting to test this theory with the Israeli culture so he duplicated the experiment. He thought that aesthetic preferences may be culturally dependent. His observation was that the Israeli culture is more action oriented and they care less about beauty and more about function. However when he duplicated the results with an Israeli group of people the conclusion was the same. In fact in his research the sentiment was stronger with the Israeli sample size. So much so that in his research report he remarked in his paper that beauty and function “were not expected to correlate” — He was so surprised that he put that phrase “were not expected” in italics.

It appears that Apple has been on to something from the beginning. Perhaps Steve Jobs absolute resolve to make technology products beautiful carried with it inherent user experience paradigms that simply made products easier to use and that theme is continued today all throughout Apple. This in my opinion is truly what is setting Apple apart in the market place. They create objects of desire and out of that focus comes a visually and easy to use user experience paradigm that drives emotional responses in consumers of their products.

We know humans are visual beings, especially men, and interestingly enough a great deal of science exists today linking beautiful things to ease of use. There are companies who can design objects of desire and easy to use products and there are those who can’t. Apple’s advantage in this area is that they create the hardware and the software with this technology and software as art philosophy. We see this in their hardware and their software and will eventually see it more in their services.

Noam Tractinsky is right and his book title highlights a profound truth. What is beautiful is usable and this philosophical truth carries over into computing and human interaction with computing.

Right now there is only one company who I think truly understands it.

References:
- Don Norman, Why We Love (or Hate) everyday things, Feb 4th 2003
- Tractinsky, N., Adi, S.-K., & Ikar, D. (2000). What is Beautiful is Usable. Interacting with Computers, 13 (2), 127-145.
- Tractinsky, N. (1997). Aesthetics and Apparent Usability: Empirically Assessing Cultural and Methodological Issues. CHI 97 Electronic Publications: Papers

Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research. He is a husband, father, gadget enthusiast, trend spotter, early adopter and hobby farmer. Full Bio
  • klahanas

    Very good points to be sure. In general, I always believed that form and function should go hand in hand. This is even much more applicable in consumer products. But form should not be chosen at the expense of function, except maybe for consumer products. Computers are tools. In fact, they are intended to be versatile tools.

  • stefnagel

    From a users angle, function follows form.

    • klahanas

      Do you see a circumstance where form inhibits function?

      • benbajarin

        Of course something can be beautiful and still unusable. I think the key takeaway is that something that is visually appealing is inviting from a usage standpoint. It is perhaps the starting point. It is what catches the users eye and draws them and invites them in. It captures their attention. So in similar ways good design should have elements of this in that the form should help the user navigate by inviting then to explore and in many ways accomplish easily that which desires to be accomplished.

        • klahanas

          So true. Too often these things are presented as if they’re mutually exclusive. They don’t have to be.
          Some design decisions, however, do impede function. What did we really gain with a thinner iMac? It really did make working on it an order of magnitude more difficult, however. Loss of upgradability is an impediment of function.

          • Space Gorilla

            Interesting. I think you’re in for a surprise in the next couple years. Something you obviously don’t see coming, that much is clear from your comment.

          • klahanas

            Hopefully, it will be a pleasant surprise, since I don’t know what you’re talking about.
            What I do know is what’s before me now.

          • Space Gorilla

            I always find this kind of poor analysis fascinating, the way emotion and bias clouds the thinking of so many people when it comes to anything related to Apple. The very idea that Apple’s approach will win is simply unthinkable, you refuse to believe it will happen, even as it happens in front of you. There’s a rich vein of denial in most of your ‘analysis’. Anyway, as I said, it is fascinating to watch it play out among folks like you, various analysts, pundits, and so on.

          • klahanas

            You know what I find fascinating? People defending Apple’s honor as if they are defending their own sister’s. Must you be reminded that you, as a consumer, are in a competitive relationship with Apple, as a supplier?
            If not, then at least please understand, or at least tolerate, those of us that have not abdicated their position.

          • Space Gorilla

            Listen to your comments, here and elsewhere, dripping with emotion and bias. I can’t take anything you say seriously, there’s no intelligent analysis, it’s one note “APPLE MAKES ME ANGRY BLARRRRRRRGH!” In the key of C I suppose.

          • klahanas

            In G…

            I got my first MBP in 2008. Absolutely loved it! First iPhone on launch. Next two years 3 more MBP’s, every iPhone, not to mention iPods. Well over $10K of “stuff”. With the exception of that 2008 MBP and the iPods, all other devices left me wanting. As you can tell, I don’t like being controlled either.

            There are other things that I can mention, but I won’t. So yes, Apple makes me angry and I’m a disgruntled customer. I do present facts, and acknowledge when proven wrong. You just haven’t succeeded at that yet.

          • jfutral

            You should just get your geek on and go Linux, then. Everything is a compromise somewhere. It is just a matter of finding out where those compromises are most comfortable. No PC will really do or be everything you want it to be if everything is what you want. I assume since you did not mention Windows, you must already be aware of the compromises intrinsic there. Otherwise buy a copy of Windows and make a Boot Camp partition on one of your Macbooks.

            I know people have been able to boot some version of Linux on Macs in the past. I don’t keep up with Linux enough to know what it is like these days. It may take some tinkering, if it is possible. At least if it is possible, you can test it out and see if you like it.

            Good luck. Life is too short to be unhappy with something as trivial as a PC.
            Joe

          • klahanas

            That may well come to pass, my switching to Linux. Not in the foreseeable future, but it could happen.

            What Windows restrictions (other than Metro)? Since version 7 Windows has actually been quite good. I get better latitude in PC’s, though I now build my own desktops again. It supports ALL hardware? If it’s limited, it’s due to technology, not policy. OSX as an OS isn’t limited either, just the hardware it runs on.

            Mind you, I have no love of MS. I’m a fan of the sport, not of any team.

          • Space Gorilla

            Ah, this explains a lot. Maybe you’re not aware how much you come across as a scorned lover.

          • klahanas

            Probably as much as you come across as a smitten one.

            Between the two of us we have established the bounds. To any potential suitor reading this, they are more completely informed. And that’s a good thing. That’s the main point of discourse.

          • Space Gorilla

            I’m not smitten at all. I buy Samsung gear as well, and I’m completely happy with it for what I use it for. I’m a pragmatist, I use what works best for the task at hand. Emotion doesn’t come into it, after all, they’re just things.

            That’s why I find the anti-Apple crowd so fascinating. You attribute human characteristics to Apple as a company, you are angry at Apple, you think Apple is out to get you, you think Apple is arrogant, you think Apple is trying to control you, and so on. It’s completely irrational.

          • klahanas

            You never clarified what I got wrong about architecture…

          • obvious

            If I buy something from a store, I’m in a trade relationship with them, not a competitive one.

          • klahanas

            Your interests are unaligned. You (theoretically) want to pay less, and they want to charge more. An infinite number of supply/demand curves demonstrate this most fundamental principle.
            You wouldn’t go the casino, sit at the blackjack table, and root for the dealer because you have a trade relationship. Would you?

          • klahanas

            It doesn’t mean it will win with us as individuals.

          • Space Gorilla

            It already has. That’s part of what is fascinating, that you can’t see this reality.

  • Space Gorilla

    Apple = Architecture. Form and function merged so well that there is no compromise. Yes, yes, the nerds will cry ‘open’, but in real world use what normal human being is limited in function by an iPad or iPhone? Architecture is also about curation, about choices being made to benefit and empower the user. There will always be edge cases of course. Can you park a large tractor in your well-designed 1,000 sq ft house? No. But that does not mean that your house is closed, evil, arrogant, or any of the many things angry nerds rant about when it comes to Apple :)

    • klahanas

      The architecture is full of compromise, disguised as “use this instead” or “you don’t need it”.
      For the couple of years when MBP’s were stuck with USB2 and FW800, when everyone else had eSATA and USB3 and Expresscard, that’s what we were told.

      Even the (currently) mighty Mac Pro. It didn’t have to be “that” small so as to obsolete current cards being used or needing an external box. Can’t upgrade the processor, can only get non-industry standard parts. What? No compromise?

      If I can’t park a tractor in my small house, my house is therefore inadequate for that purpose. If all the surrounding houses, that cost less, can…it’s a problem. Let’s say I can buy a house, say a townhouse, and the association tells me I can’t have certain kinds of guests, or parties, or pets, or it must be lights out at 11:00, that’s evil and arrogant. But I knew that when I bought it, right?

      • jfutral

        “If all the surrounding houses, that cost less, can…it’s a problem.”

        It’s only a problem if that is something you need to do. And if that is the case, why did you buy that house to begin with?

        Joe

        • klahanas

          It still involves a compromise, to which is what I was responding.

          • jfutral

            Here’s my definition of “compromise”. I want chinese food for dinner, my wife wants mexican. We compromise and eat mexican.

            I have no idea how this relates. I just wanted to share.

            Joe

      • Space Gorilla

        As I predicted, the cry of ‘open’ spews forth. By the way, it’s not ‘the architecture’, it’s ‘Architecture’.

        • klahanas

          Lending further credence that English teachers shouldn’t have computers! :-)
          You’ve never made a typographical error? Misspelled?

        • klahanas

          Upon re-examination, I see what you did there! Tis a capital “A”, I see. Forgive my transgression of couth and protocol. I must be a thought criminal.
          BTW. “open” is a good thing. It’s not the only thing, but it’s important.

          • Space Gorilla

            You still don’t understand the mistake you made.

          • klahanas

            You’re right! I don’t get it. In the order of preference please:
            a) Enlighten, so we can discuss.
            b) Bugger off! So that we can’t.
            Cheers!

  • jfutral

    As someone who works in the arts, I always find this discussion intriguing. Most people who accuse Apple and Jobs of “Form over Function” are usually ignorant of the Modern art principle that drives Apple’s aesthetic, which is more properly attributed as “form follows function”. The debate rages still in architectural circles, especially as post-moderns also look to tradition (anathema to Modernists) for as much inspiration as function. Apple’s aesthetic is more accurately seen as eliminating ornamental extravagance, the whole “minimalism” theme. This was confusing people with the whole skeuomorphism debate. So I think Ive is a truer Modern minimalist than Jobs and Forstall was. With Jobs and Forstall nodding to skeuomorphs but still driven to minimalism, I would say that puts them in a post-modern mindset.

    Modernism has done quite a number on Western thinking. For example this bifurcation of form and function. In much Eastern thought there is no such thing as the two existing independently. And to be sure, anytime something takes a form there is intrinsic aesthetics.

    The question I think Apple answers better than most tech companies (if another company asks at all) and is fundamental before one can even talk about form and function is, what _is_ the function? In the early days of computing, the the answer was simply “computing” or computational functions or mathematical calculations.

    But as in post-modernism, it isn’t enough to ask “what is a flower?” We ask “Is there a flower?” Is there just mathematical calculations? Computers are no longer being asked to just crunch numbers. They are being expected to do a myriad of functions. This is where we see Apple’s notion of focus vs, say, Microsoft’s. MS wants the tablet to be a different form factor of the PC, the old idea that a PC is capable of doing _all_ the things a PC has always been expected to do. Apple has taken the tact that a tablet doesn’t need to do all those things.

    As a matter of fact Apple’s approach is more about function than any other PC maker out there. A PC is no longer defined but what is. It is now defined by how we use it. When you look at it this way, the whole notion of processors and ram, speeds and feeds, etc., really is more a focus on form than function. That is like saying, reverting to the architectural discussions of form and function again, a house or a building is defined more by how many rooms it has rather than what we use that house or building for.

    Apple has decided to build the building for a purpose rather than decide the purpose from the house. We see this reflected in all of their marketing, too. Their ads focus less on what the device is and more on what you can do with the device.

    Aesthetics and usability are so interdependent that it is realistically impossible to separate them, even as one study says “What is beautiful is usable” and another says “What is usable is beautiful”. Once you muck with the form you affect the function and the other way around.

    Joe

    • klahanas

      ” A PC is no longer defined but what is. It is now defined by how we use it. When you look at it this way, the whole notion of processors and ram, speeds and feeds, etc., really is more a focus on form than function.”
      That’s an interesting POV. On the other hand, in your terms “What makes a PC personal?”. It’s a set of broad specifications that allow the user to tailor it to their needs, not “most people’s”.

      • jfutral

        Maybe. I would say what makes a PC “personal” is now defined by the person and their personal needs and wants. While you say Apple is telling the consumer what they want, I would say MS with Windows and even Linux does likewise, like a cable company telling the consumer they have to pay for all these channels and “functions” they will never watch or use nor would ever want to.

        Joe

        • klahanas

          I hope you’re enjoying the holidays.
          Yours is a very reasonable approach. Here’s where I get unreasonable…

          When MS and Linux tell the customer what they want, it’s not exclusively the only way to do it. I like your cable channel analogy too. I agree, you should only be paying for the channels you want, but you should also be able to get any channel you want. The cable companies are doubly wrong in this regard. In the case at hand we have my TV maker telling us which cable company and which channels. It’s “all Disney, all the time”.

          Regarding tailoring to their needs…
          Here too we agree, except on the fact that these machines are in the highest tier of price, and thus should also be competitive in the tailoring aspect as well. I have no sympathy for a manufacturer of a >$2000 machine that’s too cheap to add USB3 ports (Apple circa 2009-2012) and waits until the capability is included in the chipsets. Not having it is the worst of both worlds: high price AND absence of capability. As for the user, if you don’t want it don’t use it. It’s the most accommodating scenario.

          • jfutral

            What I’m curious about is (working back around to Macbook Pro and Mac Pro users) what are those high-end users using things like a USB port for anyway? The video guys I know are all using firewire, if they are doing any wired transferring at all. Or, really, most of them are using flash/SD/XD/McD cards because sneaker netting huge gigs of data is still faster then even Thunderbolt or Lightning or whatever it is in Macbook Pros these days. I was using an eSATA express card for external hard drive capturing, but I didn’t know any video or audio guys needing eSATA for anything but RAIDs. And eSATA is lousy for portability because it isn’t self-powering. The only USB uses were pretty much input or temporary external device, nothing really _requiring_ the bandwidth of USB3.

            But of course, that is a small world out of high-end users, and my connections to that world smaller still. So, back to your illustration, if you really _need_ to park a semi in your house, why would you buy a house that couldn’t accommodate one? Especially high-end users who have a pretty good idea what they need out of a “house”. If they were truly missing anything, I would think they are smart enough to buy something else. But then again, maybe not. Unlike most cable TV markets, Apple is not the only game in town.

            Joe

          • klahanas

            “So, back to your illustration, if you really _need_ to park a semi in your house, why would you buy a house that couldn’t accommodate one?”

            Because I really like the house, most other houses can, and not having it leaves me “wanting”.

            eSata and USB3, and now TB, are the only way to get maximum speed out of external drives. USB2 and FW were okay for their day, but they replaced the RS-232 ports.

            Regarding the small world of high end users…It is they who “keep ‘em honest”. More importantly, PC’s always were about flexibility, not having or eliminating standard competing features is not only potentially growth inhibiting but eventually “trapping”.

  • Mauryan

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What appeals to someone may not appeal to someone else. Aesthetic appeals vary between genders. In the case of consumer products, Apple has gained because the mobile devices that Apple makes has won over women. They generally like the experience more than the intricacies hidden underneath. They like things to be simple. Attractive designs help a lot when portability is one of the criteria. A desktop on the other hand like a utility truck. Now that most consumers rely on their mobile devices more, something like a desktop is going to have its appeal for a specific type of clients – those who build things – software, graphics, games and data analysis. For them, more than looks, utility is going to be a key factor. And pricing is another factor. If Apple’s Mac Pro is going to cost 3000 dollars and above with minimal room for upgrades, the techie is going to think twice about it. The Mac Pro might sell like a luxury car, and might appear appealing in real estate advertisements. But I don’t know if it is going to have the killer market appeal that its mobile counterparts have. This is a very different market sector where engineers thrive. For them, looks and appeal do not matter. Crane operators want to move things and they do not care for the driving experience.

    • accelerator

      “If Apple’s Mac Pro is going to cost 3000 dollars and above with minimal room for upgrades, the techie is going to think twice about it.”

      The Mac Pro clearly comes out of the future and not the past. A techie who needs cutting edge performance and understands that Thunderbolt 2 ports allow extensive high speed upgrades, will be eager for the Mac Pro.

      • klahanas

        TB needs to hit 40Gbs on a single cable to be the equivalent of an x16 PCIe slot. Unless you use multiple cables and multiple TB ports per card, it’s not ready for graphics cards yet.

        Otherwise, it’s far more than adequate for even the most demanding storage needs.

  • JoeS54

    This stuff really is idiotic pabulum. Apple products are for people with more money than brains. End of story.

    To be fair, at one time the iPhone was the best phone on the market. Sadly, that’s no longer true. Macs are perennially lacking software, iPads are ridiculously overpriced, and iOS 7 is one of the worst things Apple has ever released.