By Todd Bernhard on Wed, 03/19/2014
Apple usually reserves appearances by Sir Jonathan Ive, their head of design, for polished videos shows at product introductions, but he spoke with The Sunday Times in the UK this week to discuss Apple's philosophy and contrast it with the competition. The full article is available on Time.com Jony Ive's comments can be read as cheerleading or trash talking, depending on the reader's perspective, but he makes some interesting points. For example "We’re surrounded by anonymous, poorly made objects. It’s tempting to think it’s because the people who use them don’t care—just like the people who make them."
Apple's iPhone marks a watershed in smartphone design. I owned many "smartphones" and PDAs before then, from Palm, Compaq, Nokia, and others. Before Apple, even the smartest phone used plastic to achieve a low price point. The internal technology was expensive enough that it was hard to justify spending money on the casing. After all, users weren't going to spend $400 on a phone. Apple, and specifically Sir Ive along with Steve Jobs, used specially designed glass (Corning's Gorilla Glass) and of course, Ive's favorite metal, aluminum or "aluminium" as he would say.
Now, post-iPhone introduction, all high-end smartphones use metal and Gorilla Glass. Apple is even working on Sapphire glass, which will be harder and more scratch resistant. Of course the iPhone 5s is available in gold... at least gold-colored aluminum. Apple changed the direction of the industry and proved that people want high-end materials and will pay for it. Indeed, Motorola, Samsung, HTC, and Microsoft/Nokia offer stunning devices in larger screen sizes and with more features such as NFC. As Steve Jobs said when he introduced iBooks, Apple was standing on the shoulders of those who came before (referring to but not naming Amazon.) Many Android and Windows phones are indeed high-end, high-quality well-designed pieces of equipment.
But Ive's comments in the article focus on the low-end of Android phones. I've purchased several such phones because, as a cross-platform developer, I need to own all kinds of equipment. The low-end Androids are the flip phones of today. They offer just enough technology to run Android (a touchscreen, camera, and some buttons) but still use cheap plastic and feel disposable.
It's probably not fair for Ive to paint competitors with such a broad brush. Many of their products do feel cheap and underdesigned. Clearly their higher-end offerings use solid components and show attention to detail. Ive is deliberately focused on the weakest link.
Ultimately, the difference may be that Apple tries to put high quality design into every item, even the lowest cost product. Their $20 Apple remote is still a thing of beauty and belongs in the Museum of Modern Art. That may be Ive's point. Any company can put high-quality materials and design into a $3,000 computer but the real test is when low-end items like the iPhone 5c share a design methodology and use high-quality materials.