You probably remember the Blackberry. It was one of the leading smartphones of the 2000’s before iPhone and Android took over. Remember how it had that nice convenient physical keypad where you could easily write messages or dial a number? Remember being able to use a mobile device without getting finger grease all over the screen? Remember not completely losing the use of your device due to the touchscreen going haywire? ‘Member? And it wasn’t just the Blackberry that was like this. Most other smartphones, including early Android phones, had those physical keypads too. This was a nice form factor, and it worked for everyone.
Where did that nice convenient keypad go? Apple got rid of it. Enter the iPhone in 2007. Despite all the hype and Steve Jobs’ attempts to sell the iPhone as some kind of revolutionary Jesus device, the iPhone was not particularly innovative. Its only major innovation was the removal of the keypad and its replacement with a touchscreen. And that was kind of the point. Jobs described physical keypads as “unwieldy” and hard to use and talked endlessly about how touchscreen-based keypads were so much more convenient, a statement that makes no sense when you actually think about it. Despite this, he succeeded in selling the idea of touchscreen phones being the vanguard of some futuristic tech utopia to the general populace. Apple customers were excited (I mean, why wouldn’t they be given that they love the smell of Apple’s farts?) and the iPhone was an instant hit with them, selling over a million units in its first year.
Because Jobs was so successful at brainwashing the public into thinking touchscreen phones were the wave of the future, this claim ended up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Other vendors started copying Apple’s form factor until eventually it became ubiquitous and people who liked the physical keypad had basically nowhere to go except back to flip phones. And that brings us to the smartphones of today – those devices that we absolutely hate yet can’t stop using because their very design turns them into a highly addictive drug.
This illustrates a key point: When Apple screws over its customers, everyone else suffers too. Apple pushes an obviously broken product design, they make bank off of it and nearly monopolize the market, and so their competitors see it as not only profitable but also an economic necessity to copy Apple’s broken design in their own products. And thus we see how the chickenshit minimalism of Apple products propagates its way through the tech world, infecting the entire industry like cancer.
“Chickenshit minimalism” is a phrase that has been floating around the Internet recently, though the bare-bones analysis I’ve done of search trends seems to indicate that it hasn’t quite caught on yet. But I believe it desperately needs to, because this is a serious and pervasive problem in modern tech – not just in hardware but also in web development and interface design. The term basically refers to the recent tendency of designers to create technology that looks minimalist on the surface but actually isn’t. According to Idle Words chickenshit minimalism is “the illusion of simplicity backed by megabytes of cruft”. While that article pertains mostly to website design, I think there’s a broader concept of chickenshit minimalism that can by applied across modern technology: Corporations are deliberately making hardware and software that sports reduced functionality and value, while somehow managing to get more and more bloated despite this.
As I have said in previous articles on this blog, the true spirit of minimalism is removing bloat. That’s it. There’s literally no other reason to have it. There is literally nothing practical to be gained from removing a valuable feature of a program, website, etc. unless doing so reduces its memory and/or CPU footprint. And yet there is a trend in technology towards further and further crippling software and devices and trying to pass it off as innovation. Apple is at the forefront of this movement. Many people were disappointed when they removed the headphone jack from the iPhone, and equally disappointed when they removed all ports from the Macbook except for two (proprietary of course) Thunderbolt ports. Don’t let Apple’s marketing fool you. This sort of minimalism does not benefit consumers. These moves on Apple’s part are steps backwards, not forwards. An iPhone without a headphone jack is strictly worse than the same iPhone with a headphone jack.
Another place where Apple has forced chickenshit minimalism on the general populace is in their abandonment of skeuomorphism. Skeuomorphism is the practice of making entities in computer applications visually resemble real-life objects. For example, a picture of a floppy disk for a Save icon, or a picture of a wall calendar for a calendar program. Skeumorphism can also refer more abstractly to the practice of making objects on the computer screen appear three-dimensional. At some point Tim Cook decided this was unnecessary, because modern users spent more time staring into their screens than interacting with the real world. To acknowledge that real-world objects exist is to deny the inevitable march of technological progress according to him. Thus he began a now industry-wide trend of making everything appear flat and 2D.
You’d think that since computer interfaces and web interfaces that use a flat design are theoretically easier to render, they would load faster and take up less space. You’d be completely wrong. These trendy flat interfaces are more bloated than ever before, hogging your memory and CPU cycles with layers of targeted advertisements, telemetry, and surveillance scripts. This makes me especially sad, because I really liked the look of the old Mac OS X – the almost gel-like buttons and scrollbars that were mysteriously pleasing to the eye. It saddens me to know that Apple gutted this interface for no reason. What did we gain from it? Absolutely nothing. Nothing other than the intrusion of Big Brother into every nook and cranny of our lives.
R.I.P. Classic Aqua
Frankly, it’s insulting to see the sheer hubris of Apple and how they clearly believe they are God and that it is they, not the consumers, who dictate the advancement of technology. They believe (somewhat correctly) that they can completely go against the wishes of their customers and they will be rewarded for it. This violates the very founding principles of the free market. Free markets are consumer-driven. That’s what makes them great. Companies beat out their competitors by making a better product. Apple “innovates” by making their products worse, not better. And the only reason they get away with it is due to the zealous brand loyalty of their fanboys, which by this point borders on being a religion.
I believe that what we as technology consumers need to do is stop letting Apple and other big tech monopolies dictate the course of the free market. The whole idea of free market capitalism is that ultimately the consumers, not the corporations, are the ones who decide what gets produced. Apple gets away with shoving their chickenshit minimalism down our throats because we’re so thirsty for anything with an Apple logo on it that we will put up with anything they do to us. When Apple removes a feature that we were all using, instead of ditching their brand and moving to another vendor we seek catharsis by complaining about it on social media while continuing to use the defective products they push on us. We’re like a woman in an abusive marriage who won’t end it. It’s a global case of Stockholm syndrome affecting millions of people at once.
But I believe there is hope on the horizon. Apple’s recently plummeting stock prices have shown us what happens when you try to subvert the natural process of free market economics. There seems to be at least the beginning of a movement of people breaking away from the stranglehold of big tech, taking back control of the market, and moving to platforms that actually respect the customer’s autonomy. Will Tim Cook see this recent trend as a sign that he needs to get his act together and stop letting all that power get to his head? Probably not. But at least we know that Apple isn’t completely in control, that they are accountable for their own actions, and that they’re not too big to fail.