Technology is often about balance and compromise.
In order to have the most amazing THIS, you quite often have to give a little of THAT. The trick is in figuring out what people are most keen on, along with spinning the kind of smart marketing spiel that will distract people’s attention from any dodgy bits and make them think everything is awesome.
Until relatively recently, most of the THIS in handheld gadgets was all about miniaturisation. Whereas in the 1970s you had desk calculators that could conceivably have been used as an actual desk, by the 1980s, companies were merrily giving away credit-card sized solar-powered equivalents that would frustratingly fail to work unless you happened to be ambling about on the surface of the sun; but, hey, compromise.
Then there were the first mobile phones, which were only slightly more convenient than dragging around a telephone box on a trolley, and were eventually blissfully replaced by devices so tiny you ran the risk of losing them down the back of an atom.
The current industry obsession is ‘thin’. Everything now has to be super-skinny, because it’s a factor that can then be used in marketing. Your new smartphone’s approximately the same size as an advertising hoarding? MAKE IT THIN, thereby cunningly distracting everyone from the fact said phone is now actually larger and heavier than its predecessor! Your new tablet is so dull that its very mention causes onlookers to slip into a coma? MAKE IT THIN, artfully making people believe there’s actually a point to its very existence and that you’re offering something vaguely new!
On thin ice
The tiny snag is always the ‘compromise’ part, especially when technology is maturing but hasn’t quite hit the sweet spot it needs for everything to really gel. We see such problems with Apple’s new iPhones, which are beautifully designed pieces of kit that just happen to be too thin to house the camera lens. So while celebrating the fact your iPhone 6 is now precisely 0.7 mm thinner than an iPhone 5s, you can fume that the camera sticks out a bit, making the device wobble when set down on a table.
A flush design at the back would have been more aesthetically pleasing, maybe even made the battery slightly bigger, and would have meant Apple’s website and photography teams wouldn’t have had to clumsily try to pretend a camera bulge didn't exist. But then Apple executives wouldn’t have been able to bang on about how thin this really thin phone was in all its thinness.
Thin end of the wedge
Naturally, it’s not just Apple. Tablets like the Sony Xperia Z2 are so worryingly thin that they actually have a slight flex; not only does this make an expensive piece of hardware feel worryingly fragile, but also it makes it less comfortable to hold.
The new Dell Venue 8 7000 Series is even skinnier, its 6 mm beating the Xperia Z2 by 0.4 mm and the comparatively chunky iPad mini by over 1 mm. Naturally, headlines have been grabbed, for the eleven seconds that Dell’s device remains the thinnest tablet that ever thinned, while pretty much no-one wonders whether it might have been better to add some extra heft to boost the battery and speakers.
But it looks like thin is here to stay. Intel’s Chris Walker has argued in favour of doubling down on the concept of super-skinny tablets, and dreams about ditching bulky ports for charging, data transfer and peripherals. Pretty soon, mobile devices will be so thin ninja will be able to use them as weapons. Frankly, I’d rather have a bit more battery life and the means to plug in some headphones.