The Irreducible Reality of Form

In the second to fourth centuries, the philosophy of Gnosticism became popular. Though it had many variants, a key tenet was that matter was a lesser emanation of a kind of divine spirit. Human spirits were thus spiritual and good, but human bodies and matter were physical and evil, a limitation that had to be escaped in order to achieve true gnosis or enlightenment.

Why on earth do I start an article about technology–and this is an article about technology–with an ancient philosophy?1 Because good design of technology has to be based on an anti-gnostic notion that humans, fundamentally and irreducibly, are physical creatures and use physical products in a physical world. Those physical products, just as fundamentally and irreducibly, have a specific physical form that can be well or poorly suited to a human’s physical body or to the physical world.2 These forms both limit and enable functionality that is unique to that form. This interplay between a form’s function, it’s suitability to the human body and it’s appropriateness for the physical world is what design considers–and it is the interaction of these elements that has led to the success and failure of many technological products.3

Macs and PCs

Before PCs were mini-computers and mainframes, and as they developed into the form of a truly personal computer, the entire product changed. Thomas Watson, president of IBM, famously said in 1943:

I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.

While people deride his statement as a horrible prediction, the reality was that, in 1943, there wasn’t a market for computers as they existed in that form1943_whirlwind_large–machines that were expensive, took up multiple rooms, were ridiculously complex, and required a staff to keep them functioning. They were not a mass-market product and were suited to a few specific functions which only a few people could want to have.

Watson may have been right in 1943, but what he failed to realize was there is a difference between what a computer is and its physical form. The form limited the value and desirability of a computer in his day, but once the technology could be placed in a different form, its functionality was increased massively.

A computer that was accessible to an average person via a display and mouse, while still a computer, had a radically different form that enable entirely different functionality. It was small enough that it could fit on a desk and thus it could be personal.

Today, even though the PC industry is not doing well, the form of the PC is still uniquely suited to some functionality that tablets and phones will never be: it has a large screen that enables productivity, an unlimited power source that enables high-speed performance, a full keyboard that fits human hands and, because it is a form designed for a desk, its ergonomics are better for work done while sitting than even a tablet or laptop that you have to lean over.4

Computers will continue to miniaturize, but they are not Gnostic. They will always have a physical form that limits them and enables them.5 Those limitations are larger than their enabled functionality and so users are adapting to mobile phones, just as the limitations of mainframe computers let to the use of PCs. These movements, however, though enabled by technology, had nothing to do with technology. Mobile phones won, not because they are technologically superior–they don’t hold a candle to a supercomputer–but because their form is better adapted to the physical world in which people live most of their lives.

iPhone & smart phones

By now you can likely predict the next steps. What made iPhone so powerful was that it’s form–a touchscreen, pocketable computer–enabled so much more functionality than a computer. 3rd party apps on iPhone can do things a personal computer could never do: pay for your groceries (ApplePay), tell you if its going to rain in the next 10 minutes (Dark Sky), unlock your Mac without typing a password (MacID), call a cab to where you are (Uber), track how much you’re walking (Stepz), take amazing photos (Camera+), or take these unique abilities and combine them with Workflow to do amazing things like sending a photo to via email/SMS/iMessage/Facebook/Instagram/Twitter with one click so it gets to everyone–and put it into your own personal diary (DayOne), all with one click, no matter where you are in the world.

The power of iPhone was not that it was a new computer but that it was not Gnostic; its physicality mattered. It was a new form that was perfectly adapted to the hand, to the pocket, and to the world in which it existed.6

iPad & tablets

Interestingly, this same theory explains the challenges Apple has had with iPad. Their advertising has capitalized on the uses of iPad that its form uniquely suits it to do: things where having a keyboard is a limitation. However, as it turns out, most people prefer the form of a thin laptop for many tasks and a phone for many tasks, and the tablet is left in between.

The iPad has a unique form, but, of all Apple’s products, its OS was most Gnostic, acting as if the form didn’t matter, like it was just a big iPhone. In the previous examples, new products were adopted because the benefits of the new form were greater than its drawbacks, but in the case of iPad, there weren’t many benefits to the new form compared to iPhone (larger screen, better battery) while there were many drawbacks of the form compared to computers (virtual and smaller keyboard, one app at a time).

Merely making it thinner or lighter, as Apple did with iPad Air & Air 2, did not solve this fundamental problem. iPad can do amazing things that iPhone can’t do because iPad has a large screen, but these opportunities haven’t truly been realized except in niche areas because the software hasn’t uniquely enabled it. I’m excited to see that, in iOS 9, iPad is finally gaining functionality that its form is uniquely suited to have. My fear is that without changes in the App Store to allow for better long-term success of apps, especially productivity apps, this potential may not be realized.

Apple Watch (and smartwatches)

I’ve written extensively about this before, but the potential of wearable computing is unparalleled in the functionality that it can uniquely enable. In everything from digital touch to health and fitness to identity, we have not yet begun to explore what Apple Watch can do that iPhone could never do. Its form is limited in size so that, even when it doesn’t require an iPhone tether, it won’t replace iPhone. However, that perspective ignores the massive potential opportunities that wrist-based computing can have!

Already, I have seen huge hints of this future–from physically meaningful texts to how its changed my fitness to the paradigm shift of persistent identity–and if I can see these hints, I literally cannot imagine the potential it will have as it gains sensors and as developers tap into the potential of the device. This also is one reason why I am so bullish on Apple Watch: because what its form enables is so fundamentally profound compared to its limitations.


Human beings are irreducibly physical creatures living in a physical world. Despite technogeeks’ visions of living in a virtual reality, we are, and always will be, physical. I wonder if this is why Google and Microsoft have both had so much trouble with physical devices, whereas Apple has excelled in design. Their core competencies and incentives are aligned towards excellence in virtual creations that ignore physical form, whereas Apples’ are focused on physicality.

Rather than being Gnostic and contending that physicality is something to be ignored or devalued, it is only when companies accept embrace human physicality that they can create forms that fit our bodies and the world. Where technology has succeeded in world-changing ways, it adapted to the physicality of our existence. Where it did not make this adaptation, it failed, not for lack of technological innovation or skill, but for lack of humanity in the device.

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If you enjoyed this, you will also enjoy Apple Watch’s Form is Its Function

Recommend App: LongScreen

LSIn this section, I recommend an app that I love and which you may be interested in. Today I’m re-featuring an app because it is the best app I’ve found for joining and merging screenshots: LongScreen. Read why I love it and use it all the time or check it out in the App Store today!


1. Besides the fact that I majored in philosophy in college and have to justify it as useful, that is.↩️

2. My thinking on this was inspired by discussion on a recent podcast on which I was a guest. It’s not out yet and I won’t spoil the surprise–but I think you’ll enjoy it. I’ll post here and on Twitter when it goes live, so stay tuned! It is now out! You can add it to Overcast here or via iTunes here ↩️

3. Of course, I am not saying success and failure are determined by these alone; execution on design, manufacturing, marketing, market conditions, etc. all have a massive role. However, I would contend that if a product does not get the intersection of these elements right, it will fail eventually, regardless of those conditions. ↩️

4. Similarly, this is why Microsoft’s approach at a universal OS will fail unless it can 100% adapt to the new form. A Surface being used at a desk, on the lap, and in the hand are three radically different forms of computing, but the device itself doesn’t adapt to any of the forms.↩️

5. Notice, incidentally, that Apple’s rejection of a touchscreen Mac was exactly due to this consideration of form. As Steve Jobs said:

Touch surfaces don’t want to be vertical. It gives great demo but after a short period of time, you start to fatigue and after an extended period of time, your arm wants to fall off. it doesn’t work, it’s ergonomically terrible.

Touch surfaces want to be horizontal, hence pads. For a notebook, that’s why we’re perfected our multitouch trackpads over the years, because that’s the best way we’ve found to get multitouch into a notebook.

That is also why I’d venture that Apple will never put a touchscreen in a Mac or a laptop. ↩️

6. Notice, too, how Apple’s original take on iPhone was built specifically to fit in the hand. As people wanted larger phones, the iPhone 5 was built specifically for one hand. The change to the 6/6+ form was not because the previous forms were a failed adaptation to the physical world. Rather, people found that the limitations of the smaller form were greater than the one-handed enablement of that form, just as people found with the personal computer. ↩️

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