You’re close to becoming powerless over your phone, and it all has to do with the little “wake” button on its skinny right side.
Companies like Apple have worked for decades to remove mechanical parts, including true power switches, from the gadgets they release to the public. Opening up these devices, fixing them, or even fully disabling hardware features has become much more difficult. That’s created a new status quo of slender electronics that corporations have full control over — displacing you, the consumer who paid a lot of cash to “own” a modern smartphone.
This transformation didn’t come out of nowhere. In fact, the seeds of this tech transition can be seen in completely unassuming appliances from long ago. My grandparents had one of those lamps where you would touch the metal casing to turn it on. It was a fun gimmick, but the novelty wore off quickly.
It turns out that physical switches have a lot going for them. They work when your hands are wet — my grandparents’ lamp was impossible to use after I washed my hands. A switch’s position can tell you if something is on or off. They are predictable. And cats don’t turn them on in the middle of the night.
Today, simple, intuitive objects like light switches are being replaced by internet-connected smart switches. We’ve become disconnected from how things actually work. If the bits that make the switch function are stuffed away inside a microchip, then we have no idea where to turn when things go wrong. Like when Google decided to permanently disable its smart-home hub Revolv, instantly disabling smart homes around the world.
I’m just one short circuit away from frying the phone.
This digitization has brought about a lot of changes. The platonic ideal of a modern gadget is thin and waterproof, with no moving parts inside. Any interruptions to the device’s smooth exterior gets in the way of that design imperative — for a removable battery, say. Or a fan vent. Or a power button. But the path to removing these features has been fraught.
Steve Jobs hated anything that got in the way of a seamless user experience. He especially despised fans and famously demanded that the Apple III eschew active cooling. Despite massive heatsinks, the lack of cooling created a thermal expansion problem that forced chips to migrate out of their sockets. Apple’s recommended “fix” was to lift your computer six inches off your desktop, then let it drop — in hopes that the chips would reseat themselves on impact. Seamless user experience indeed.
Years later, Jobs created the Power Mac G4 Cube. Like the Apple III, the G4 Cube was fanless. It also eschewed one mechanical item possessed by almost every electronic device to date: a power switch.
The Power Mac G4 Cube took a capacitive cue from my grandparents’ lamp. Stroke the top of the case and the touch sensor would power the system on. No snick, no physical feedback. Just touch the top and bong, the Mac’s F-sharp major chord would sing, and the friendly face of Mac OS would beam at you while the machine booted.
The cube never sold well. Low End Mac explains one reason why: That touch sensor was awful. “Touch it by accident and watch the Cube shut down. That was annoying every time it happened — and even once was too often.”
The Cube failed, and Apple’s replacement had a proper power switch. But with Steve Jobs in the driver’s seat, mechanical switches were not long for this world.