Apple irks and niggles

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On one of my frequent tours of duty through the Sex and the City box set (all part of my wife's ongoing Ludovico technique experiments), a little detail kept bugging me. It wasn't the ridiculous frockery or the cutesy-incessant voiceover. It wasn't even the general air of "sod feminism, let's all marry rich so we can buy more shoes" being sold as girl power (hello the nineties!). No, it was the apple. The upside-down apple.

Every time Sarah Jessica Parker's writerlady opened her G3 Powerbook, the Apple logo on the back was upside-down! I’m sure it looked great when the machine was closed and slung under an arm, but not whilst in use. What's the point in carefully product placing a product into a place if the logo is guaranteed to be the wrong way up? And not just on telly, but everywhere: all those Macs being used in coffee shops and on trains and at conferences, all of them dumbly displaying what looked like Pacman’s incontinent deformed cousin.

This sort of thing irks me. I’m sure there are more pressing issues in my life (such as, why are we watching this when there's a perfectly good Buffy box set right there), but the fact that a logo was poorly set fifteen years ago has put a tiny indelible crinkle in my brow. But it irks. It irks and niggles.

So thank heavens that Apple saw the error of their ways and now the logo is mostly always the right way up (there's no accounting for folks merrily rotating their iPhones and iPads all over the place). It’s all better now. Compared to those days of the ninetysomethings, everything is more polished and smoother and roundier-cornier and just more Ive-ish. 

And yet, buried under all that aluminium and glass and it-just-works, niggles remain. 

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Don't get me wrong, I love my Mac. And my iPhone. And my iPad. They are really rather splendid. I converted from That Other Computer Method ten years ago and I haven't looked back. And I'm sure I must've owned a dozen mobile phones before this little gem, but I'd be hard pressed to remember what any of them were called or who made them. I am a brand-fan. Apple good. 

It's just … well, sometimes I feel like the Princess and the pea. No matter how comfortable and reassuringly supportive all my Apple gubbins may be, once the tiniest of disagreeable details becomes apparent, it plays on my mind. Why is it there? Why is it like that? Why isn't it right? Everything else is right, why isn't this right? And then I can't get anything done. I have to carefully clamber down from my pile of metaphorical mattresses and deal with that pesky metaphorical pea.

Why can't I see my email count in the toolbar? Why does iTunes split up my albums like that? Why is it easier to type § than #? How come the Calendar app icon shows the correct date, but the clock icon is forever stuck on 10:15? Would a ninth Safari tab really be that difficult? And two apps represented by compasses is a bit silly, isn't it?

I know, I know, I should get some perspective. We live in the world of tomorrow (or Tomorrow’s World, as we called it yesterday). When I grew up, the best bit of technology I owned was a typewriter that came with black and red ink ribbons (just imagine the possibilities!), or perhaps Zoidzilla. If I were to go back now and explain to my pipsqueak younger self some of the things you can now do with an iPhone, little me would probably pop with excitement.

But then a troubled look would appear on my angelic little face. 

“So it's telephone that I can carry about and it plays songs and movies and games and it's also a camera and a book and a notebook and it connects to a sort of super-Ceefax and it feels like a lump of chiselled science fiction amazingness and it fits in my pocket and I can get it to do stuff just by talking at it?”

“Yes.”

“But you can't uninstall Stocks?”

“No.”

“STUPID.”

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Sorry young self. The good news is that, one illogically insistent app aside, these little things tend to right themselves. The lab-coated boffins at Apple see the same idiosyncrasies as us regular folk, and they strive to keep the niggle count low. They may have a bit of a backlog – they’re still reeling from the fallout of the infamous iTunes Vertical Traffic Light Buttons Incident of 2010 (aka “the tut heard around the world”), and have recently lost valuable resources to the Skeuomorph Back-peddling Division – but they're doing the best they can. 

And there's a flip-side to all those irks: a thousand nice little touches that you take for granted until you suddenly notice them one day and realise just how deliberate, how considered every aspect of the Apple experience is. All those curves and angles and dimensional ratios didn't happen by accident. And they all add up. The biggest company in the world is built on a foundation of details. 

Look at the logo on the descendant of Sarah Jessica Parker's silly Powerbook, the MacBook. It's the right way up now, and it glows. And not only does it glow, it glows at the same brightness as the display. Dim the screen, and you dim the Apple. Not really necessary, but it brings a smile to the mind. And the charms of the MacBook light show don't end there. Even the most restless and pea-vigilant of princesses would struggle not to be comforted by the gentle pulse of the MacBook’s power light. A delightful de-irkifier, an anti-niggle. 

Now all we need is an anti-Stocks …

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Originally published in the July 2013 issue of MacUser.