Apple Accessories: Designing for the Mac
posted ago by baron
Though you wouldn’t know it nowadays, the original Apple product will forever be the Mac computer (technically it was the Apple I, but that was a Mac in spirit). While tablets and smartphones have come to dominate Apple’s public image, one third of Apple’s revenue is still drawn from laptops, desktops, and similar devices, indicating that the good old fashioned compy isn’t going anywhere. Better yet, the category’s lower profile means that the Mac accessory market is relatively tepid, leaving plenty of room for daring Quirky inventors to carve out a slice of the pie. To get you on your way, here’s a breakdown of Apple’s current computing line-up, and the state of their accessory markets.
The iMac (21.5 inch, 27 inch)
As the largest and heaviest Apple device, the iMac is undoubtedly the big bad motherf*cker of the Apple product family. As desktop computers, these juggernauts emphasize power and size over versatility, so accessory concepts are inherently limited to things that you’d need at a desk. However, this is hardly a setback for an intrepid inventor: the existing crop of accessories is relatively boring as a result, so there is a lot of room to make a splash with an impressive, impactful product.
The first step in devising an iMac accessory is to rule out the obvious. Keyboards and mice are an uphill battle from the start, since iMacs are compatible with most any version of these devices. As a result, you’ll have to find a concept that innovates across the entire personal computing market, Windows included. USB hubs and iPhone docks are also big no-no’s: these already exist in every iteration, and are frequent-flyer submissions on Quirky. There may be room for a little innovation here or there, but neither is a product type with much potential for impact.
The reason these products are boring is that they are based on long-established product formats, which companies have been developing and refining for decades. In contrast, the best kinds of accessories are those that harness the product’s tech to give the user something entirely new. The Twelve South Backpack is a great example of this, exploiting an oft-ignored design feature for surprisingly useful storage. Input is another category that is ripe for innovation, with several new products generating substantial buzz. The Zorro Macsk uses infrared sensors to turn any iMac screen into a touchscreen, while the Leap Motion controller takes a cue from Minority Report, enabling users to control their computer through mid-air gestures. While these two devices may have cornered the input market for now, the core principle is clear: “Don’t try to reinvent ______, try to invent something that makes ______ look stupid.”
The Macbook (Macbook, Macbook Pro, Macbook Air)
Ranging in size from the 11.6 inch Macbook Air to the 15 inch Macbook Pro, Apple’s laptops are decidedly more versatile than their desktop cousins. While most are too expensive for single-purpose roles (e.g. a media server), their portability means that they can be used in a wider variety of settings, so don’t shy away from submitting Macbook accessories that target a certain demographic (athletes, travelers, moms, etc.). Furthermore, it’s important to note that this compactness limits several key functionalities: one obvious example is the MacBook air’s lack of an Optical Disk Drive and FireWire port, along with its relative dearth of USB ports. While external ODD’s are already on the market, these drawbacks are elements that can apply to any kind of accessory (for example, a Macbook case with built-in ODD). Before sitting down to design any kind of accessory, make a list of the laptop’s core drawbacks and keep it close, in case you find a way to address them in your design.
Portability also adds a new kind of accessory for laptops, the case, which at this point is a relatively untapped product type. Most Macbook cases pursue a minimalist design to highlight the laptop’s sleekness, and rightly so, but products such as Folio and the HD-storing Macbook case demonstrate that this rule can be broken if the innovation is useful enough. Thus, if you’ve got an idea for a feature-based case, try to keep it slim, but don’t be afraid to get a little creative if you think the payoff is worth it.
The Outliers (Mac Mini, Airport Express, Apple TV)
This hodgepodge of devices may be the underdogs of Apple’s product line-up, but in many ways, that makes their accessory markets the ones with the most potential. While the Airport Express and Apple TV aren’t technically personal computers, they provide enough unique functionality to make the list. Taking the benefits of the Macbook a step further, these devices are not only ultra-portable, but affordable enough for a wide array of specialized applications. The Quirky office use Mac Minis as the hub for all our in-office monitors, and that is only the tip of the proverbial spear.
In fact, many of these applications are already being explored by Quirky inventors, but in the wrong product group. Inventors will often submit concepts for the iPhone that would be too small to be a viable phone accessory, but which would be perfect for a larger format device. We’ve received countless submissions for an iPhone projector, but to date, we haven’t seen anyone suggest a projector cradle for the Mac Mini, or an attachment designed to work with an Apple TV. If you live near an Apple store, our recommendation would be to take a field trip to examine these products first hand, and to get a real feel for what they’re capable of, and what their small size might allow them to do. After all, in an age where anyone can travel to space, nothing is off limits.
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Monday Design Tip: If You’re Designing For Apple, Design Like Apple