Sunday, June 21, 2009

Apple and bikes

Continuing on in the "what if XX made a bike" series, let's take a deep breath and go after the big one: Apple.

Prologue: Today's state of bicycle "captial D" design to my mind is so-so at best. The fact that opportunity still exists for Apple to come in to the market (should they decide they want to) means that design is still lagging, despite all the effort put towards it. At right is a "design" put forth by Puma, a design-conscious fashion clothing manufacturer, for their fourth-generation bike. They appear to be making some kind of statement about color, except they can't quite get even that right (ahem, guys, get a white handlebar, stem, and front rim, and powder-coat the front brake calipers! If you're going to make it about color, DO IT!)

If Apple made a bike, what would it look like? Knowing what I know about Apple (I've been a Mac user since 1984 and have worked for 10 years for Nemetschek North America, makers of Vectorworks, the best-selling CAD product on the Mac), and particularly considering its recent successes with industrial design since the iPod, here is what I could reasonably predict about any Apple product:
  • It would be iconic; recognizable as the thing that it is (that is, it would be a realization of a classic design rather than a revolutionary design.)
  • It would feature obsessive attention to detail.
  • It would focus on the user experience.
  • It would definitively fix problems with the product category that users didn't realize they had.
  • It would be visually beautiful and a tactile delight.
  • It would co-promote other products made by Apple as part of a lifestyle.
  • It would be expensive, a stretch for the pocketbook; something that conveys status, but stops short of aloofness.
  • It would be value-engineered, so Apple could make a decent profit.
  • It would be sold only through the Apple store. (duh.)
  • There would be tremendous opportunity to create a third-party "add-on" ecosystem.
So, how would these "branding requirements" translate into a specific bicycle design? What are the "unrealized problems" waiting to be solved in bicycle design that could be fixed with an obsessive amount of user-centric problem solving and delivered through industrial design? I think the major problems to be solved (the "user requirements") are these:
  • Looks: The bike should have a minimalist look, as much like a fixie as possible. The explosive popularity of fixies is all about that sexy, iconic bike look.
  • Shifting: Bikes need to be easier to use (i.e. shift) so that users don't wear themselves out getting from point A to point B. (Fixies look great, but aren't practical unless you're an athlete.)
  • Security: There needs to be a convenient, highly effective anti-theft solution.
  • Comfort: The places where your body touches the bike, the controls, the seat and the pedals, need improvement. This is after all the "user interface" of the bike. Ideally, other than for a helmet (and maybe some sporty-looking gloves) you wouldn't need any special clothing to use this bike.
  • Maintenance: The thing needs to set new standards of minimalism in maintenance.
Specking out this bike (at a high level) would be fun—more fun, I daresay, than the sweat-work of designing and testing it. (So, let's do it!) I would think we'd see the following kind of "functional specification" from Apple in trying to fulfill these requirements:
  • Frame: Probably hydr0formed aluminum, welded, with smooth-dressed joints. The finish would be anodized ("nanochromatic" colors to match the iPod nano?) and clear-coated. All cables would be internally routed. The frame would be set up so that a minimum number of sizes (maybe just two: small and large) would accommodate all riders. This presumes a maximally adjustable seatpost and stem arrangement.
  • Drivetrain: Internally-geared rear hub, probably 8 speed, with an automatic shifter working off cadence and speed scnsors integrated in the frame. Belt drive. Gear range for city hills.
  • Brakes: Internal hub brakes front and rear. (Yes, the hubs will be big, but it'll be a clean look and low maintenance. Speaking of which...).
  • Maintenance: Carbon or aramid drive belt good for 10,000 miles. Sealed bearings everywhere. Aramid-belted tires (possibly tubeless) with interior goo to stop slow leaks. All cables Teflon-coated. An absolute minimum of hardware exposed to the elements. Here's where that famous Apple attention to detail will pay off.
  • Controls: Brake handles with fully-concealed cabling. The cyclocomputer would be your iPhone or iPod touch running a "free" app from the App Store. The app would integrate GPS, speed, odometer, traffic and weather reports, and (naturally) music. There would be special valve-stem caps that could sense low pressure in your tires and transmit warnings to the control unit via Bluetooth. Oh, and the app would enable customization of your shift points on the transmission. The front hub would be a dyno-hub to keep the lights and the iPhone charged up.
  • User Interface (pedals, seat, handlebars): I think Apple could come up with some clever platform pedals that would work with street shoes but still have some restraint to allow pedaling efficiency. And the handlebars should be "fixie" style, perhaps with cell-foam padding so they could be used without gloves. The saddle is the real problem, because it needs to fulfill two conflicting requirements (1) be an iconic bike saddle; and (2) be comfortable. I think they'd have to do something like provide a "basic" saddle that has a proven comfort record like the Terry Liberator, and a "premium" saddle that is a Brooks classic leather saddle that comes fully broken in. (That will be an expensive extra cost option!)
  • Accessories: I think fenders, yes; but rack, no. (Fenders are sexy, racks aren't.) Instead of selling racks and panniers, Apple could sell coordinated backpacks (they could re-brand this ergonomic German one). Lights front and rear, for sure, integrated into the frame. The really tough challenge is the security issue. You could easily design security to work for Mudville, but not so easy for Manhattan. And effective locks are so big and heavy. I think Apple might try a two-pronged approach: first, a frame design that integrated a solid locking bar that would allow you to use a small high-security lock rather than a U-bar lock, and secondly, something (again an extra cost option) that worked with the iPhone to transmit a "help" signal if the bike were being tampered with.
Whew. Quite a bike, huh? What should it sell for? I would say that it ought to sell slightly above the price range for Apple laptops, say $1900 to $3500 depending on the options. I daresay that Apple has enough economies of scale, manufacturing wise, to be able to pull this off, and to value-engineer it to make a profit. (That auto-shifter will be tricky to engineer for sure, but Apple's just the company to do it.)

An industrial designer who is really ready to take on the challenge of the Apple bike is the Swedish designer Erik Nohlin from Gothenburg. He entered his delightfully minimalist, well thought out "MuskOx" design in the Bicycle Design (blog) "Ultimate Commuter Bike" design contest. (He should have won in my opinion.) If Apple wanted to get into bikes, they should just hire this guy, give him the list of requirements, and fund him.

But, first things first, Apple. Before you can proceed on this project, you have to wrestle the "iBike" trademark (#3096850) away from Velocomp LLP, makers of the "iBike" cyclocomputers.


Unknown said...

interesting speculation. as a daily bike reader and long term Mac user, I've actually thought about this too. I agree that apple would lean more toward the old/new urban commuter bike model, so the user doesn't have to add clip on stuff like fenders, bell, lights. they'd all be incorporated into the "operating system" i.e. the bike frame itself. Hub gears, low maintenance roller brakes, anything else that gets between the user and the action she wants to perform (riding) would be eliminated.

But there's some tension between usability and minimalism. For a lot of urban bikers, a rack isn't an extra -- it's a daily part of our routine. Also, what about a chainguard or chain case? not minimalist, but user-friendly (no mud on the clothes) and reduces maintenance by keeping crud out of your chain.

Most American commuter bikes that incorporate this stuff wind up looking clunky, the bike equivalent of a windows box with lots of add ons and plug ins. But the simple elegance of my Dutch bike is the closest thing I can think of to an Apple experience. It doesn't look quite minimalist -- it's not a MacBike Air -- but is elegant while still providing everything I need for daily urban biking without tampering. Sort of like the old PowerBook G3s.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Robert,
While I'm not a major cycling enthusiast (though my best friend at work is and tells me his biking stories all the time!) I sure am a Mac fan (typing this on a MacPro) and loved the idea of a bike designed by Apple. And thanks so much for putting my blog in your blogroll. I really appreciate it!

Alex @ Happiness in this World

Andreas Haukås said...

If it was an Apple Bike they'd have non-standard pedals, tube sizes, and wheels, and they'd figure out a way to lock you into their Bike ecosystem and prevent you from ever buying anything else...

No really - they would

Unknown said...

After Apple came out with their bike, they would sue Schwinn and all other bike manufacturers vehemently. Steve Jobs did invent the wheel, you know.