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How a botched $15 power connector indicates Apple’s decline

By Simon Davies

I’m not usually inclined to stray far beyond my brief of privacy and information management, but sometimes it’s useful to keep track of the general health of companies in that space to get some idea of whether they are on the skids and need to be more closely monitored. Apple has just fallen into that arena.

Of all the condemnation that can be heaped upon Apple, the one thing you could always say for the company is that it jealously guarded its reputation as a design guru.

Of all the condemnation that can be heaped upon Apple, the one thing you could always say for the company is that it jealously guarded its reputation as a design guru. The company’s top-level “Air” range of powerbooks for example was always meticulously designed around the practical needs of customers. Customers rewarded this commitment with a loyalty that bordered on the obsessive.

That intimate interface at the design level should always have been the element that marked Apple as a company that gave a damn about its customers. But like many organisations in such a position there comes a moment when management loses its grip on the prime directive and forgets the user. At that moment the fortunes of a company can swing disastrously the wrong way.  For Apple, that moment has arrived.

If Apple’s track record had been consistent then the newly released version of the Air should have been even more user friendly with a design that was even more sympathetic to the primary needs of the product’s customers. Not so. One tiny botched part has completely ruined an otherwise elegant and highly prized design. It has Apple customers throughout the world fuming, with many like me seriously considering moving to another manufacturer.

One tiny botched part has completely ruined an otherwise elegant and highly prized design.

The botched part in question is the MagSafe power connector. Apple had a genius idea with its MagSafe product for a plug that sat snugly inside the computer housing and which was held into place with a strong magnet. It meant that if the power cord was yanked in any direction the plug would simply pop out. No disastrous consequences.

So what did Apple do to this genius design? They ruined it – and they unnecessarily ruined it. Not only did they ruin it but they created a design that even if intended to be so, could not achieve greater irritation and inconvenience. The “new slimmer” MagSafe 2 has become one of the outstanding design failures of this century.

David Pogue from the New York Times elegantly summarises the situation:

Not only did they ruin it but they created a design that even if intended to be so, could not achieve greater irritation and inconvenience.

“The beauty of the MagSafe connector was that Apple had found precisely the right balance between attachment and detachment. Strong enough to hold the connector in place, weak enough to detach if it gets yanked.

“The MagSafe 2 connector fails that balance test. Badly. The magnet is too weak. It’s so weak, it keeps falling out. It falls out if you brush it. It falls out if you tip the laptop slightly. It falls out if you look at it funny. It’s a huge, huge pain.

“That weakness is compounded by a second problem: a return to the “T” design of older MagSafe connectors. In other words, this thing comes straight into the side of the laptop — the cable shoots out at 90 degrees — instead of hugging the side with the cord parallel, like the old “L” connectors. As a result, it protrudes a half inch beyond the left edge. You can’t rest the left side of the laptop on your thigh. It’s constantly getting bumped. And since the magnet has all the grip strength of an elderly gnat, guess what happens?”

This is not a peripheral matter. The entire utility of the machine has been compromised. It is simply impossible to use the laptop the way a laptop should be used, and the user is expected to adapt to the limitations of the machine.

This tells us a lot about Apple’s deterioration. What happened to the customer interface in the design process? It has clearly died. No-one bothered to give the new Air to a real user to test in real-life conditions.

If Apple has now reverted to a mere lab-based design utility where customers are just a market then we need to start re-assessing the nature of the company. If they can screw up so badly on a simple plug feature, why on earth would they bother taking care about the consequences of design relating to information processing?