The MacBook Air isn't solely responsible for tech's body image issues. But in 2008, it was the Kate Moss of gadgets, the one that helped solidify a trend toward wafer widths. And at this year's CES, which won't play host to any of this year's "blockbuster" products, manufacturers are instead touting their products as the thinnest there is. But the electronics industry, like the fashion industry, seems unconcerned with whether skinny is healthy.
Acer, desperate to mop up the PC end of the ultralight laptop market, has just revealed what it's calling the "world's thinnest ultrabook." The Aspire S5 is just 15mm thick at the fattest part, weighs under 3 lbs., and for fun also sports a Thunderbolt port (previously a Mac-only feature). Interestingly Toshiba's Z830 ultrabook is a machine it had previously claimed was the lightest and thinnest—and at 8.3mm at the front, sloping to 15.9mm at the rear, and just 2.5 lbs. in weight it's a close call. The ultrabook flood hitting the shelves throughout 2012 will warm over this battle many times, you can be sure.
Also at CES LG is promoting its Cinema 3D line of HDTVs, and among the line is a super-skinny machine that has a bezel around the screen that's just a vanishingly-small 1mm on three sides. The Korean firm also has a demonstrator TV on show that sports expensive future-friendly OLED tech for its display, meaning it too has a tiny bezel all-round, and a front-to-back depth of just 4mm. It's basically just a flat panel you stick to your wall, and there's almost nothing to the TV apart from its screen.
Meanwhile Toshiba's got a device on show at CES that it's saying is the thinnest tablet PC yet. The Excite X10 is priced above the iPad, but is just 7.7mm deep and around 1 lb., which really is insanely tiny—the iPad 2 is 8.8mm front to back, and the Galaxy Tab 10.1 is 8.6mm.
Then there's the new Galaxy Tab, originally demonstrated before the iPad 2's debut—now it's a thinner, better reimagination of the iPad 1. And when Apple showed their product, Samsung's bosses apparently ordered a re-jig of the Tab so it beat Apple's size constraints. This was a pure one-upmanship effort for absolutely zero gain to the consumer. Can you detect a difference between an 8.8mm tablet in your hand and an 8.6mm one? Maybe, but that's not a test you'll be doing every day. And yes, Toshiba's tablet definitely beats both the Samsung tablet and Apple's in thinness. But all this allows Toshiba to do is plaster "world's thinnest" all over the PR for the device in the hope that the average Joe shopping for a tablet PC is actually seduced by a phrase like that.
Rich Leigh of 10 Yetis PR, and the man behind GoodAndBadPR, notes, "When fighting a seemingly unwinnable battle in any sector, minute product differences, such as a millimeter or two's difference in size—are often marketed to death in a bid to stand out from the crowd. A new product could have the best specs, but if it's not as aesthetically or ergonomically crafted as the leader, it will fall short of intriguing the masses" and that's why specs like Toshiba's get aired. Leigh notes, "rarely if ever have I seen Apple ads highlight the technical side of their products at the expense of focusing on the user experience or appearance aspect of their products."
That average Joe may also never realize that innovating thin portable devices comes at a cost. There's only so much room inside a thin, flat machine like a tablet PC for a screen, cameras, glass protection for the screen, the electronics, a battery and a solid, inflexible, hard-to-damage chassis. To get your tablet PC thinner you have to engineer compromises in all of these components. It's a technological tour de force of course, but with the current state of tech it's perhaps easiest to go for thin by making a thinner lithium battery unit—a battery that simply doesn't last as long for powering your device.
In terms of thin laptops, Apple's innovation was to use a single block of aluminum for the chassis of the Air. By precision machining this block it acts as both pretty exterior case and strong internal mounting chassis for all the components. In pursuit of pure design, the Air was made thin to make it ultra-portable, and this forced Apple to ditch a spinning hard drive (in the later models) and a clunky DVD drive. The design is now a standard for many an ultrabook—each of which tends to follow the same hardware choice—but manufacturers are having difficulty matching Apple's model for the chassis and are opting for cheaper plastic, with the attendant problems of cheaper build "feel" and less rigid construction. In this case thinness itself presents unique design and end-usability compromises.
Meanwhile makers of ultra-thin TVs like LG and Samsung face a slightly different problem. It's not an issue for them to have their devices handled as they're meant to be static (although shipping these ultra-skinny TVs may pose a different fragile packaging headache), but an ultra-skinny TV with a super-slim bezel presents an unexpected problem: branding. Where, on a machine that's all but invisibly hidden behind its screen, do you put a big logo that tells the watcher they're an LG customer? Samsung solved that on its current range of SMART-TV LED TVs, that have a slender but still noticeable silver bezel, by sticking a bigger lump at the screen bottom with an LED-lit Samsung logo inside. LG's following a similar route with their OLED unit. LG and Samsung will have to innovate by slapping their logo all over their TVs smart user interfaces if they want to get increased brand exposure on skinny TVs. Is that desirable from a consumer point of view?
And there's another innovation issue with the relentless pursuit of thin. When you've boiled down a gadget to its purest physical form (an ultrabook that's just a keyboard, trackpad, screen, and a few ports, or a tablet PC or TV that's essentially just a screen with a rigid chassis behind it) where do you go from here in design terms? There's no definite answer, though you may worry that a backlash in the form of over-adornment and frills in 2013's gadgets may be the result. One solution is to consider it the peak of a paradigm, and take your industry in a wholly new direction—something we've hinted may be the fate of the laptop. A different answer is to innovate what's inside the gadget instead, get clever with the tech and really deliver winning, lovely or completely unexpected features and usability to the consumer through its UI. For example, perhaps one way to get around thinness issues with charging or interface ports is to adopt wireless charging or syncing—something that looks to be another 2012 CES theme.
This forced innovation is great for us as consumers, of course. But it's tricky for the manufacturers. Once their hardware is honed to perfection, they have to hone the software too ... and delivering sleek experiences and novel features that differentiate your product in this way is no way as easy as coming up with a super-shiny hardware design.
Thinnovation. It's chic, it's everywhere, it's good for your bag-carrying back. But it comes at a cost for some device powers, and in terms of making manufactures really think about what consumers want and need. (Then again, Jobs, the Godfather of Air, once famously said it wasn't the consumers' job to know what they want.) This position leads us to wonder exactly what direction makers will take their gear in for the CES of 2013: Will they go for "thinner still" or, perhaps, "experience our amazing voice-controlled interface"? Could there even be a wicked backlash: "Our 2013 tablet is thicker, sure, but it's ten times more powerful than the skinny, wimpy competiton."