No, I don’t mean the software – that’s a different topic.
I mean the actual physical hardware. Let’s take mobile phones, or more specifically, smartphones with increasingly large touch-based displays. They’ve got a lot of glass (the display), and more glass (the touch panel). Here’s an idea – in addition to all that glass on the front, let’s add glass to the back as well (Yes, I mean you, iPhone 4; check out the preliminary iPhone 4 failure rate). Don’t you dare drop that thing onto something like a concrete sidewalk! Apparently, when you buy a new phone, you’re supposed to immediately bury it with rubber bumpers, skins, and covers, and as a consequence, destroying the original aesthetics and design intent of the phone.
This phenomenon is even worse with iPads. They’re unrecognizable by the time they’re festooned with covers, folios, and other protective contraptions to make them usable in the wild.
Even larger form factors like laptops? Well, they just break. Drop the average laptop: it likely suffers some serious damage.
Hey, manufacturers! Devices that people hold, carry around, use on the move, and put in their pockets, bags, purses will get dropped, crushed, scraped, and bumped. I’m old enough to remember when phones were leased, not purchased, and breaking Ma Bell’s equipment was virtually impossible. I also remember that early generations of mobile phones were built like tanks. Were they as thin as crackers? No. But dropping them was not a big deal.
A few companies have specialized in building products engineered for real-world environment, perhaps most notably, Panasonic. We recently bought our second Toughbook, model S9. Our first Toughbook was the R5. The Japanese-only model R5 outlived a number of other laptops from large manufacturers that I won’t mention, and it wasn’t because it was cared for gently. I was shoved into cramped bags, dropped, bumped, and user heavily. It just kept working and working. In addition, both laptops are very light (the S9 is 3.2 pounds), and both have great battery life that’s enough for all-day use (the S9 is rated for 11 hours).
Downsides of the Toughbook? It’s very expensive, and you won’t find it any mainstream retailer. It is the embodiment of a niche product. Wait, a laptop with great battery life, decent performance, light weight, and robust design intended to withstand real-world use is a niche product? Yes. Heavy, fragile laptops that are addicted to wall outlets are the norm. This is completely backwards, and contrary to what real people need.
If form really does follow function, then mainstream products have gone seriously off track.