We the people have always been helplessly drawn to the concept of magic: the notion that you can will something to happen by wiggling your nose, speaking special words or waving your hands a certain way. We've spent billions of dollars for the opportunity to see what real magic might look like, in the form of Harry Potter movies, superhero films and TV shows, from Bewitched on down.
It should follow, then, that any time you can offer real magical powers for sale, the public will buy it. That's exactly what's been going on in consumer technology. Remember Arthur C. Clarke's most famous line? “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Well, I've got a corollary: “Any sufficiently magical product will be a ginormous hit.”
Anything invisible and wireless, anything that we control with our hands or our voices, anything we can operate over impossible distances—those are the hits because they most resemble magic. You can now change your thermostat from thousands of miles away, ride in a car that drives itself, call up a show on your TV screen by speaking its name or type on your phone by speaking to it. Magic.
For decades the conventional wisdom in product design has been to “make it simpler to operate” and “make it easier for the consumer.” And those are admirable goals, for sure. Some of the biggest technical advancements in the past 30 years—miniaturization, wireless, touch screens, artificial intelligence, robotics—have been dedicated to “simpler” and “easier.”
But that's not enough to feel magical. Real tech magic is simplicity plus awe. The most compelling tech conventions—GPS apps telling you when to turn, your Amazon Echo answering questions for you, your phone letting you pay for something by waving it at that product—feel kind of amazing every single time.
The awe component is important. It's the difference between magic and mere convenience. You could say to your butler, “Jeeves, lock all the doors”—and yes, that'd be convenient. But saying, “Alexa, lock all the doors,” and then hearing the deadbolts all over the house click by themselves? Same convenience, but this time it's magical.
Now, creating magic requires a lot of extra effort; to make something seem nontechnological, the designers have to hide a lot of technology. I'd argue that Apple became so successful in part because early on, it became one of the primary vendors of magic. I'll never forget the first time I drew a picture with the mouse on the very first Mac. It was a program called MacPaint—black-and-white only, on a 512- by 342-pixel screen—but it took my breath away.
Apple has often been late to the party. Long before Apple introduced the iPad, other companies sold tablets. Well before the iPod debuted, pocket music players were available from rivals. And before the iPhone was even a twinkle in Steve Jobs's eye, you could buy touch-screen phones.
Why didn't those products set the world on fire? You know what I'm going to say: because they weren't magical.
The early tablets were thick and clunky and covered with buttons; the technology wasn't hidden enough. The early MP3 players were glitchy; nothing says “not magic” louder than the need to troubleshoot. And touch-screen phones weren't truly magical until they had multitouch screens like the iPhone's. The first time you tried zooming in on a photograph by spreading two fingers on the glass, you were sold. You wanted that product. It was magic that you could buy.
Fortunately, these days magic is everywhere, appealing both to our laziness and to our sense of wonder. It's in wireless charging and augmented reality. It's in voice control of our smart homes and in Fitbits that somehow know what sport you've just played for an hour. It's in summoning a car and driver with one tap on your phone. It's in software that recognizes the faces of your friends in your pictures.
Thank you, engineers and designers of the world, for taking on the role of creating magic. Right now we the people can use all of it we can get.