Comparing Apples & Volvos: User Maintenance Forgotten


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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