Look around your office floor or home office's power strips. How many big, obstructive, hot black power bricks and adapters can you count? My home entertainment system sports about six for a very modest set of gear; my office has three. Power adapters aren't given much thought by designers.
That's part of what makes the new Apple iPhone 3G's adapter so marvellous. While oceans of ink and electrons have been written about the network and software features of the phone, I'd like to wax briefly rhapsodic about the tiny bit of white plastic with a USB port on one side and two metal electrical prongs coming out of the other.
Apple likes to rethink basic assumptions. They know what we hate and what we love. Where other computer and phone makers have seemed to require teams of people working separately to integrate their varying projects at the least cost in a sort of "you got your peanut butter in my chocolate" sort of collision, Apple works iteratively and progressively among all its teams.
The famous scroll wheel on its iPod? Suggested by a marketing chief, according to Leander Kahney's excellent new book Inside Steve's Brain. (Contrary to the title, it's not about Steve Jobs per se; it's a business guide to how Apple's CEO aggressively directs small, hard-working teams in avoiding accepting a second-best alternative — ever.)
When an Apple exec slid the iPhone 3G power adapter to me across a conference table during a briefing Monday, I was briefly confused as to what he was showing me. It was so vastly unlike every other power adapter ever designed. Even Apple's own tiny rectangular bricks with easily swapped plugs — for international use or to replace a two-prong plug with a cord with a third-prong end — pale in comparison.
I've seen once before a simple adapter designed for devices that could adapt universally to local voltage that simply fit over whatever plug style you were using with the plug style you needed. But this is the first I've seen a company work so hard on this particular item.
Apple isn't just about the flair and pizzazz. They're about the hard engineering work required to make things simpler and less invasive. It takes a village of wonks to shrink a power adapter.