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Summary:

Apple computers have frequently been compared to Volvo automobiles, more due to the perceived political and ideological leanings of a prominent cohort of their respective users (ie: urban liberals) rather than commonality of design and engineering philosophy. Indeed, while Apple has tended to be a design […]

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Apple computers have frequently been compared to Volvo automobiles, more due to the perceived political and ideological leanings of a prominent cohort of their respective users (ie: urban liberals) rather than commonality of design and engineering philosophy. Indeed, while Apple has tended to be a design trendsetter, hanging out on the bleeding edge of the avant garde, Volvo’s design has typically been conservative, even stolid and deliberately boxy.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been an admirer of Volvo cars since I first got up close to a 122s at a fall exhibition in New Brunswick back in 1963. Over the years I came to admire the ruggedness and performance of the old Volvo 122s and 544s especially, including ones that were raced on weekends in sports car club events. There was of course the Volvo P1800 sports coupe, and the derivative ES 1800 sportswagon had some Apple-esque pizzazz, but they were largely designed by Italy’s Carrozzeria Pietro Frua and initially built for Volvo by England’s Jensen Motors. Contemporarily, I think the ES 1800-inspired Volvo C30 is cool, and the forthcoming Volvo XC60 T6 crossover is going to be a choice piece of iron, with a spectacular interior done in white with blue instruments, Light Nordic Oak, and brushed aluminum accents that looks like Apple’s Jonathan Ive could have conceived it.

However, there’s another Volvo-Apple similarity I don’t find at all congenial — namely a predilection of both firms to discourage user maintenance and tinkering, taking a superciliously paternalistic stance that any messing about inside their products is better left to “trained experts.” Examples from Apple are the difficult-to-open-and-service iPods, iPhones, and Mac minis, and the not intended to be user-replaceable batteries in the MacBook Air and new 17″ MacBook Pro (although I’m confident there will be ways).

Volvo revealed a similar bent several years back with a not-for-production design exercise called the ‘YCC’ or ‘Your Concept Car,’ designed by a team made up of 80 percent women to work on a car expressly for women. The YCC team reportedly surveyed some 400 female colleagues about what was perceived to be missing from cars and found three-quarters of the answers were the same.

So what did these women want? Well, high on the wish list was no easy access to the engine compartment, with that area of the vehicle enclosed in a single large section, meant to be opened only by Volvo mechanics, with the internals to be worked on with dedicated tools. When the YCC required servicing, it would automatically send a wireless message to a local service station, which would contact the owner to schedule an appointment. This may sound attractive to some folks’ way of thinking, but is of course anathema to a lifelong car-tinkerer and do-it-yourselfer like me, and I hasten to emphasize that it’s not just a guy thing, as my hotrodder daughter, who drives a Ford Crown Vic Police Interceptor and is rebuilding her 1968 440 CID V8 powered Imperial convertible hands-on, would tell you in no uncertain terms. She can swing a wrench and operate a MIG welder with the best of them.

It may be deceptively comforting to at least theoretically not have to worry about tedious technical details of automotive maintenance, but what happens when your YCC Volvo conks-out on a highway in the middle of the night and there are no Volvo mechanics with special tools around to get you going again?

On the other hand, not all the Volvo YCC ideas were lame. I like anything modular, and seat cushions attached with magnets that can be removed to be cleaned or replaced sound great, although not necessarily for the cited purpose of swapping colors and textures to match fashion outfits, occasions, or even the weather.

Analogically speaking, Apple’s keep-it-simple, trust us with the details, send-it-in-for-service product philosophy has much in common with the “Lady Volvo” concept, although Apple does tend to blow both ways a bit. For example, the easy-to-get-at access to RAM and the hard drive in all MacBooks and the latest MacBook Pros are excellent examples of the way it should be, but batteries that require the machine to go in the shop for replacements swing hard in the other direction, very much analogous to the YCC’s semi-sealed engine hood.

Even the respectively touted rationales — lengthy oil change and other maintenance intervals for the car and 3x longer service life for the new 17″ MacBook Pro battery — are cut from the same conceptual cloth, and both have the same conceptual flaw: things rarely go as well in real world experience as they do in theory.

My preference in cars or computers is to make everything as easily accessible, take-apartable, and repairable as possible, not just for “trained technicians” but for anyone modestly handy with standard tools. Unhappily, that doesn’t seem to be the direction either Apple or Volvo want to go. Pity.

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  1. You seem to think that there are two equally-easy choices to make and Apple chooses the one that gives them more control. You’re wrong.

    The newest 17″ MacBook Pro could well have had a removable, user-servicable battery. It would have had a significantly shorter life, would have weighed significantly more, and might’ve forced other tradeoffs (cooling, RAM, not having a solid body, etc) in the process. But you ignore this, as if Apple simply used the standard battery solution but refused to put in a few extra screws so you could remove it.

    Silly.

    Look at tower Macs… they’ve very accesible inside, and have pretty much made it impossible for any manufacturer to stick to the old “remove the 3-sided cover” mentality. Laptops have other tradeoffs, and Apple’s not doing so poorly in that field.

    I know you like crappy old Mac laptops and would just as soon be running a Pismo with Intel chips in it, but you’re way off on this criticism: it’s not a matter of style, it’s a matter of tradeoffs and results.

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  2. quite surprising u think apple does not pay attention to ” take apartable” concept..try Mac pro & see how fitting & removing of DVD drives & HDDs is as easy as it gets! Just Plug & play…why should things be removable & easy to pull out/in..and add to the complexity..
    Windws is easy to dismantle & rebuild.. but the way HDD is connected.. ( the power cords from SMPS & then changing the jumpers etc ) is so cumbersome ! apple has moved way ahead is making things SIMPLE & EASY.. but people are just happy being with those unwanted complications..

    Why not if battery life inc & esser replacements are reqd so we take it to apple care then & let the professionals handle that..instead of having screws to fiddle around with for just the satisfaction of things being accesible??!!

    Sometimes things are not that accesible for maintainence.. but then isnt it good that sometimes maintainence is just not needed!!
    People need to think ahead & simplify .. while they are not ..

    Pity..

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  3. Re: “Volvo’s design has typically been conservative, even stolid and deliberately boxy.”

    Um, not for well over ten years now. Historically, yes, but that’s far from “typical” anymore.

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  4. I think you are stretching an analogy far far past the breaking point here. It was an entertaining read, but as an argument it’s full of holes.

    The “Lady Volvo” debacle was a *concept* not a product and failed not because women are silly or that the ideas were bad but because it was a tiny mostly uniform group of people that were asked for their opinions.

    The real problem with this argument is that while concept products are occasionally done this way (by surveying opinions of users), no well-designed product is actually designed that way. Design features are (or should be) included in a product because they are the best solution to a given problem or set of problems. Consumer feedback may in some instances define what the “problems” are, but not the features that are intended to solve those problems.

    Even though it’s a really prevalent myth, to design a product by means of what the consumer thinks “should be” included is to approach the design completely backwards.

    Also, the only real example you give of Apple behaving in this way is the non-replaceable batteries on some items and how iPods are hard to open. The non-replaceable battery on the iPod (the only thing you would need to open one for anyway), is a design solution that works. It’s not a wacky idea, not originating from some consumer brainstorm, and has been proven to be the best solution for years and years now. Generally, if the battery included in a product is spec’ed to last far longer than the device itself, a non-replaceable battery is an excellent solution and a better design than a replaceable one. Ask any real designer and they will tell you so. It’s a better design just from an environmental point of view if nothing else.

    By your own admission of being a tinkerer, you should likewise absolutely *love* the batteries on the Air and the MacBook Pro 17″ because with a simple screwdriver you can get right in there and muck about with the battery and all the other components. These products (the only ones you mention besides the iPod) actually argue against you, not for you.

    In fact, *all* recent Apple products, with the exception of the mobile device, are far more user friendly than they ever have been in the history of Apple products. The Mac Mini, the Mac pro, and the iMac all open far more easily than previous generations did and the hard drives and memory chips are all *more* accessible than they have been. Quite the opposite of the picture you paint here.

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  5. Charles Moore Monday, February 9, 2009

    Hi guys;

    Thanks for commenting all.

    I’m aware of Apple’s philosophical rationale for using non-swappable batteries. I wrote about it at cinsiderable length and detail in a report here:
    http://www.pbcentral.com/columns/hildreth_moore/unibody17.shtml

    It’s just no a philosophical outlook I share.

    I did acknowledge that Apple blows both ways on this matter and could have given other examples of them blowing the wrong way (ever try changing a hard drive in any iBook?), but chose to focus on the battery replacement issue as exemplary because it’s topical and currently newsworthy (eg: see: http://blogs.zdnet.com/hardware/?p=3469)

    As for “if the battery included in a product is spec’ed to last far longer than the device itself, a non-replaceable battery is an excellent solution and a better design than a replaceable one”, I wouldn;t disagree, but the problem is that speced or not, batteries don’t outlast the device in many instances, as teh thriving business in third-party iPod battery replacement kits is testimony to. The battery failed in my first iPod before the machine did. I replaced it myself, and didn’t find it too difficult — for me — but it did end up requiring a soldering job so I wouldn’t characterize it as user friendly. I would probably not have too much trouble replacing the batteries in the Air and Unibody 17 either, or for that matter getting into the engine room of that Volvo concept car, but again that’s me. I’m addressing the concept of reasonably easy and cheap DIY service for ordinary consumers.

    As a matter of fact, I think an Intel-powered “son of Pismo” that would be as easy to service, repair, expand and upgrade as the original Pismo would be way cool. However, I just took delivery of a gorgeous new unibody MacBook, and I think it’s way cool too, so I’m not quite the complete Luddite that Wayne seems to think I am.

    Cheers,
    Charles

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  6. Changing a hard drive in an aluminum MacBook takes about 3 minutes — blindfolded!

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