Apple: No longer the masters of packaging

Anyone who has purchased an Apple product in the past few years – particularly a computer, iPod or iPhone – might have noticed that they have a certain knack for packaging. The boxes are sleek and sparsely labelled. The sub-boxes which contain the various component parts all fit together smoothly. The actual parts are individually wrapped in protective plastic film.

Then the devices themselves are pared down to their simplest form. A single button graces the front of an iPhone. A Mac Mini doesn’t even get that – just a slot and a light, with the power button hidden away at the back: convenience traded in for elegance. The iPod has moved from four buttons and a wheel down to just the wheel, the buttons being subsumed beneath it.

Not for Apple the clunky front-facing power, reset and eject buttons of a typical PC. Not for Apple the vulgarity of a slide-out phone keyboard, or a separate second mouse button. And not for Apple the hideous lines at the back of a device that allow the proles to actually replace the battery in their phone or MP3 player.

Apple strives for elegance and simplicity. It’s a modernist’s dream made real. Sure, it might mean a little inconvenience in some areas, but what is beauty without suffering?

But I’m getting carried away. This post is about the packaging, not the packaged. For a long time I’ve held Apple to be the kings of packaging. Their bare matt-laminated boxes scream quality, whilst the sharp edges and clean lines evoke a feeling of precision. Just what you want for the packaging of a high-tech product.

I’ve observed over the years that not everybody notices the packaging. For some it’s just an obstacle between them and their new toy. Others perhaps realise it’s different on a subconscious level, but don’t actively acknowledge it. For anyone who doesn’t really understand why not putting a load of text on your box is sometimes the best option, I offer this oldie-but-goodie: What if Microsoft designed the iPod…

But now I’ve found a new master of packaging: Chumby Industries. In my previous post I mentioned that I’d purchased a secondhand Chumby, in its original packaging. The Chumby is soft and squashable, using flexible plastic fittings and fine Italian leather to produce a highly tactile device. It eschews Apple’s hard, clean lines in favour of flexible, lumpy edges. Whilst Apple’s devices feel like the pinnacle of machine construction, the Chumby feels like a barnacle of human construction – and I mean that in a good way.

So the Chumby itself is a squashable, mashable, squeezable, bashable lump of tech in cow’s clothing. But those people at Chumby Industries didn’t stop there. Not only does their product feel distinctly humane and friendly in its construction, but that humanity extends to its packaging.

Apple’s collection of quadrilateral boxes gets replaced in the Chumby world with a nested set of cloth bags. Apple’s minimal documentation gets bested by an even simpler pamphlet with rounded corners printed on obviously recycled stock. The Apple logo sticker included with some products gets well and truly trumped by the inclusion of three soft foam characters on loops of string, to be attached to the rivet on the right of the Chumby so that the new owner can personalise their device.

Have a look at this unboxing (or rather, unbagging) video, and just consider how completely different this is to any other piece of high-tech equipment you might have bought in the past:

Everything about the Chumby package is designed to encourage you to imbue your Chumby with a personality – to treat it more like a cuddly toy than a piece of technology. It’s an approach that works well for a device like this – and probably wouldn’t work for many others. But it is nice to see someone doing something different in the tech world.

To finish, here’s my summary of packaging in the tech world:

  • Most companies: Do not buy this unless you understand what all these tech specs actually mean. Are you certain you’ve got an AMD Pentium 3.5 Gigglyflops processor?
  • Apple: Our tech is so simple that you don’t need to know all the techie details.
  • Chumby Industries: Come here, gizza hug :-)