The Design of Everyday Obsolete Things

In honor of the Mac’s anniversary, a new appreciation for things that have outlived their usefulness

Two things that I do a lot on this blog (and elsewhere on the internet): reminiscing about getting my first Mac, and desperately trying to justify expensive purchases. With the Macintosh’s 40th anniversary, and last week’s pre-orders for the Apple Vision Pro, I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few days doing both.

A few days ago, I replied to a Mastodon post in honor of the Mac’s anniversary, listing my first Mac, my favorite Mac, and so on. For my favorite, I picked my current one, a 14″ M3 MacBook Pro. And I chose it without hesitation, which kind of surprised me.

The introduction of the M1 got Apple back on track, and they’re once again on a streak where every new Mac is the best computer I’ve ever owned. This one has everything I want, and it’s powerful enough to run docked but light enough to take just about anywhere I’d need a computer. The screen, keyboard, trackpad, and speakers have gone through enough revisions to be just about perfect. And — the best part after being burned, literally, by the last few Intel models — it runs cool and silent.

But my favorite? When the classic Mac is so innately appealing that just seeing a photo of one has me back on eBay looking to get a used one in good working condition? When there’ve been so many unique designs that instantly provoke nostalgia for the exact time in your life when you had it? I like this computer for its functionality, and for the fact that the design has been iterated to the point that it does exactly what it needs to without drawing any attention to itself. But in 10 years or so, I’m unlikely to have many fond memories of this (space) black slab itself.

And that, essentially, is what knocked me off of the fence when it came to ordering the Vision Pro1Prescription pending. I might still find out my eyes are too broken to use it, and my order gets cancelled..

Okay truthfully, I obviously can’t say that I was ever really “on the fence” when it came to the Vision Pro. It was more like I’d leaped over the fence with a speed and agility surprising for someone of my age and weight. But what made me feel a little more comfortable about being on this side of the fence was that the object itself is a neat design. Beyond what the headset can potentially do2And beyond the “EyeSight” feature that will never not be eerie, it’s just an appealing-looking thing. All sweeping glass and aluminum wrapped around processors and cameras and sensors laid out in as small a space as the early 2020s allow.

I’ve been telling myself repeatedly that there will of course be newer models — already far along in design if not in actual pre-production — and they’ll be even thinner and lighter and more powerful, but I could never figure out why that wasn’t helping at all to douse my enthusiasm for the thing. Neither was reminding myself that I’d bought the first iPhone, the first iPad, and the first Apple Watch, and they were all fairly quickly made obsolete by newer, better versions.

Then I remembered that I’d bought one of the first iPods3I can’t remember if it was the actual first generation, or the second, but it was the same basic design.. It was probably the thing that turned me from a Windows user into an Apple fanatic (as it was at least partially intended to do). The thing had been an absolute marvel when it was my first MP3 player, but it didn’t take long for me to upgrade it to a smaller version with more storage. I’m not sure exactly what I did with it, but I’m pretty sure that I gave it away. After all, I didn’t have any use for it.

I still wouldn’t have any use for it. But still, every time I see a photo of one, I feel a little twinge of… not regret, certainly, since I don’t regret giving it to someone who could use it, but more a feeling of just wanting to hold it again. Just for a little bit. You know, like Bilbo Baggins with the One Ring.

That chunky piece of acrylic on the front, the mechanical click wheel, the black-and-white display with familiar Chicago(-ish?) font, and the spinning hard drive that would cause the music to skip any time I hit a bump in my car — they all doomed it to obsolescence, but they are and were an essential part of its charm.

I just had a memory of being in a bar with a guy I had a huge crush on at the time, and he showed me his MP3 player4(Not a euphemism). He was proudly not an Apple guy, so it must’ve been one from Creative or something. (Maybe it was even a… gulp… Zune?!) He asserted all the ways that it was better and significantly cheaper than an iPod, and I’m sure that technically, the argument had merit. But it was just a dark gray plastic box that played a bunch of almost-certainly pirated music. There wasn’t anything to love about it. Or conjure up any kind of emotion, really, apart from Isn’t it great how it’s the 21st century and thanks to Napster, all music is free forever now? I kind of loved the iPod.

So I’d been spending all this time thinking of the first iPhone, the first iPad, the first Apple Watch, and all these other Devices Of Apple Consumerism Past as nothing more than evidence that I make poor choices. But the truth is that I just like having them.

Taking out the first iPhone and iPad to take a photo for this post, I was struck first by how sticky the rubberized case for the iPad had gotten. But after that, I was struck by how they have a sense of presence to them. I can immediately tell not just what they are, but when they “happened.” Even after Apple had started down the path towards Peak Minimalism, where it seemed as if the entire goal was to achieve the perfect black rounded rectangle that disappeared completely in favor of its content and its functionality, there’s an appeal to the device itself. (For laughs, have a look at Wikipedia’s project image for “iPad.”5In case it changes in the future, the picture at the time I’m writing this is simply a featureless, solid black rounded rectangle.)

The big bezels — which at the time were seen as an unfortunate necessity that we should all please ignore and focus on the screen, thank you — are now the things that give it what passed for “character” around 2010. The chunkiness of the first iPad made its super-thin successors seem like obvious upgrades at the time; now, though, the thinner ones have practically vanished into nothing, now that their batteries are no longer strong enough to power their screens. Even with the screen off, the first iPad still has some sense of identity.

So I haven’t changed my mind about how long the Vision Pro will be impressive based solely on what it can do. It should be amazing for a year or so, and then “pretty dang cool” for at least a couple of years after that. People seem so jaded about the state of VR that I do still wonder how much traction it will gain, and whether other people will try one out and feel, as I did, that Apple has made so many refinements of and improvements on the state of mixed reality that it’s become something truly revolutionary. Or maybe people will conclude that it’s nothing all that groundbreaking, and it’ll either become a luxury niche, or fade into obscurity altogether. But either way, it will remain an appealing product to hold, not just to use.

And iterations from now, after the metal gets thinner and lighter, or is possibly relegated off to the battery pack, and the glass gets redesigned, and the front-facing screen gets “re-imagined” into something less eerie, and the screens get better or even become transparent, all of those aspects of the first version are what will give the first version character. And I’ll hopefully be able to look at them and remember 2023, when I felt like I was seeing the future, and I spent the next several months trying to talk myself out of buying one. And I’ll remember a time when people designed things to have personality, not just functionality.

  • 1
    Prescription pending. I might still find out my eyes are too broken to use it, and my order gets cancelled.
  • 2
    And beyond the “EyeSight” feature that will never not be eerie
  • 3
    I can’t remember if it was the actual first generation, or the second, but it was the same basic design.
  • 4
    (Not a euphemism)
  • 5
    In case it changes in the future, the picture at the time I’m writing this is simply a featureless, solid black rounded rectangle.