Generally speaking, I think it’s cheating to use what John Siracusa says as a topic for a blog post. I could get 2–3 posts out of almost any episode of Hypercritical or the Accidental Tech Podcast (except for the ones about games, which hold no interest for me), just filling in odd details and expanding certain issues. But that would turn this blog from And Now It’s All This into Being John Siracusa, so, for the most part, I refrain. I’m making an exception today because I thought there was an important but unstated connection between two things he said on the most recent ATP episode.

First, in response to Casey’s question about problems with computing devices we take for granted today that will seem inexplicable (because they’ve been solved) in the future. John’s answer (at about 1:28:30) was the expectation that our expensive phones will break when we drop them.1 He anticipates improvements in materials that will make our phones less fragile.

I don’t think we need to anticipate any significant improvements in materials to get significantly improved durability. The answer lies in John’s later (1:46:00) comment that all of our computing devices will get much smaller and lighter as time marches on. Even though there are practical lower limits on certain dimensions because of the thickness of our fingertips and the resolving powers of our eyes, the other dimensions will continue to shrink to the limits of strength and flexibility. His example was an iPhone the thickness and weight of a credit card. It’s the inevitable reduction in weight that’s the key to better durability—lighter products are, the more resistant they are to damage from falling because they don’t carry as much inertia.

My first iPod nano was a replacement for a mini, and at first it seemed too small in my hand, as if Apple had gone beyond usability in its obsession with making things smaller. But I soon realized that my initial concern was wrong; the nano was just as usable as the mini and was far more durable—and not just because it had solid state storage instead of a spinning disk. When I got home from a bike ride, I could pull the nano out of its armband and throw it across the room onto the bed as I walked into the bathroom to take a shower. If it bounced off the bed and hit the floor, no big deal—it was too light to get hurt. I would never have done that with the mini, and I wouldn’t do it with my iPhone, either. Even the iPhone 5/5s are too heavy (and expensive) to treat that cavalierly.

J.B.S. Haldane put it much better in his essay “On Being the Right Size”:

You can drop a mouse down a thousand-yard mine shaft; and, on arriving at the bottom, it gets a slight shock and walks away, provided that the ground is fairly soft. A rat is killed, a man is broken, a horse splashes.

As our phones move from man to rat to mouse, they’ll automatically become better able to survive our clumsiness. Improved materials will just be a bonus.

  1. He talks about dropping them on “cement” instead of “concrete,” which causes an involuntary twitch in my right eye. I try to be tolerant. I know that most people don’t know or care about the difference, but all my years of civil engineering training cry out in anger and despair.