A Boxing Match

Any moment now, someone else is going to remind me of how close Christmas is. Even in the spring friends seem to delight in trying to panic me by letting slip how many – or few – days there are to go.

Then we will spend hours trying to penetrate layers of wrapping paper, cardboard, plastic, and worse, to open each present, and the next few days trying to work out which of those can go for recycling. It is just as well, then, that packaging is the new corporate forecasting tool; better than a post-doc mathematician, entrails of goat, or tea-leaves, you can tell where a company is headed by the way that it packs its products.

If this sounds implausible, think through some scenarios. What if your local Apple retailer handed over a brand new iPad or iMac wrapped up in old newspaper, or you saw a Jaguar XFR being delivered in tatty taped-together cardboard boxes? Indeed in some cases – perfumes and boxed chocolates – the packaging may be more of the product than its contents.

Admittedly some products – foods, pharmaceuticals, tobacco – are now so hamstrung by legislation that their packaging designers must spend a lot of time working things out with their therapists.

Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD came in a basic charcoal black box with a confusion of closures. It appears unsure as to whether to invite you to gain entry by slitting its stickers, or tearing a perforated strip reminiscent of an Amazon book parcel. Inside it clearly aspires to greater things, but remains workaday; it lacks aesthetic aura.

Microsoft’s Surface, if you managed to get one here in the UK, came in a black box, closely tailored to fit. At one end a white cutaway adds interest and guides you to remove its snug-fitting white inner. Although superficially elegant, something is not quite right, like a camel race in Wiltshire. Unboxing your Surface is satisfying, but somehow falls short of being a magical experience.

Adobe’s Acrobat Pro XI upgrade was a single DVD packed in dull and largely vacuous layers of thin cardboard. Each layer opens in a different manner, but none gives any good clues as to how it should be done. Inevitably you become frustrated, misread the situation, and struggle to break through to the DVD. A printed slip informs that Acrobat Pro now needs to be activated online, although that seems to be incorrect.

Apple’s products, whether complete systems like iPads or iMacs, or minor components such as keyboards, come in packages that never fail to delight. Every opening tells where to look and what to do, without a single word or icon. At each level there is meticulous attention to detail, cables neatly held in place with slivers of plastic, the result of inspired and thorough design. The pervasive aesthetics inspire thoughts of a Japanese tea ceremony, or the ritual folding of a kimono.

My Watch was perhaps the consummate packaging experience, with an unboxing which might have taken place in the secret country mansion of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999).

In each case, the impression given by its packaging bears out the destiny of the product within.

Kindles, neat and functional though they are, remain electronic book readers, successful only by virtue of Amazon’s vast range of books; for music, movies, or apps they have yet to get to the starting line. The Surface might come good, but for the moment Microsoft is still searching to give it a truly compelling and endearing feature. Acrobat is an essential, solid tool, but neither in this release nor any previous has it brought anything exciting or revolutionary despite Adobe’s repeated attempts to hype it up.

But so long as Apple remains true to its inner self, to the spirit of Steve, to the Zen of its succession of insanely great products, it should remain in the ascendant. You know that first Apple product to ship in mundane packaging will mark the moment to dump its shares and move out.

Updated from the original, which was first published in MacUser volume 29 issue 1, 2013.