The Desktop Critic: Thinking More about Different

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"Think Different," if you ask me, is a great slogan. First of all, it's perfectly grammatical; Apple's telling you not how to think, but rather what to think about. Nobody complains about "Think big," "Think thin," or, as I saw on a skier's car recently, "Think snow." The oft proposed revision, "Think differently," makes no more sense than "Think bigly" or "Think snowly."

Furthermore, Apple actually lives by its motto. Frankly, I have my doubts that things actually go better with Coke, that quality really is job one at Ford, and that Pepperidge Farm does, in fact, remember. But Apple's designers truly do spend their days reconsidering computer design.

The iMac's cables, for example, connect on the side, where you can reach them, instead of on the back. The iBook wakes up when you open it–a brilliantly obvious behavior. And the ingenious drawbridgey side panel of the Power Macs should make other computer makers smack each others' foreheads.

Apple's inspired me. I've become obsessed with design, even the design of everyday things. Why are things the way they are–and why can't they be better? I can't help wondering what everyday products would be like if Steve Jobs and his chief designer, Jonathan Ive, could have a whack at them. If they ever quit their day jobs, here are some ideas to get them going.

The Clock Radio

Why must we adjust the wake time by pressing a fast-forward button, praying that we release it at precisely the right instant? Every hotel guest in the world wastes three minutes nightly performing this ridiculous ritual. Would it be so difficult to add a number pad, like the number keys on a telephone, to the standard clock radio so that I could simply punch in 830 A and be done with it? Touch-tone phones cost $15 at Wal-Mart; number-pad parts are cheap.

The Diaper

New parents quickly master a peculiar skill: gauging whether a baby's diaper needs to be changed. You wind up pinching the white, gel-filled panels of the diaper in a queasy attempt to measure its change-worthiness.

So here's my brilliant idea: Why don't the manufacturers make diapers that turn blue when they're wet? I've seen toothbrushes and razor cartridges that change color when it's time to replace them–why not diapers? The parents would win, because their babies wouldn't crawl around in wet diapers longer than necessary–and Lord knows, the diaper company would win, because parents would change such diapers more often.

The Keychain

At high-tech companies these days, employees carry photo-ID cards that unlock doors automatically as they brush by. You can wear one on your belt, to keep your hands free. Phase One: Make this no-hassle system standard in homes, too, so you don't even have to put down the groceries.

Phase Two: Program these cards to store the passcodes for every door in our lives–front door, back door, car door. Physical keychains, and their accompanying inconvenience, disappear forever. (Ironically, Mac OS 9's Keychain control panel is exactly this idea. Now it just needs to leave the software world and enter the real one.)

Airline Web Sites

At least four times in the last several years, I've driven all the way out to the airport, only to find that my flight has been canceled. The Jobs-Ive overhaul: Suppose that, when we bought a ticket, airlines let us indicate an e-mail address or a pager, fax, or phone number. Then, in the event of a delayed or canceled flight, we'd be notified automatically. Heck, we should even have the option of being notified when the plane's leaving on schedule –as a friendly reminder.

This wouldn't require hiring more staff–I'm talking about a completely automated system. It would take some programmer about a weekend to set up. The airline could make fabulous marketing hay: "We're the first airline that cares about your time." (Believe it or not, I once laid this idea on a board member of a major airline. Needless to say, it expired in his head faster than last year's frequent-flyer miles.)

The Kitchen Sink

In hospitals, you step on a foot pedal to turn on the water. Why not at home? You could wash hands or dishes far more conveniently, prevent the spread of faucet-handle cold bugs, and save water because you'd avoid leaving the tap running. Anyone got Kohler's 800 number?

The Mouse

Before they overhaul America's keychains and diapers, I've got a more pressing assignment for Jobs and Ive: Apple's modern mouse. You can't rest your hand on the stubby little thing, and it's hard to tell when you've got it straight. This is one case where Apple needs to think different–about thinking different.

January 2000 page: 176

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