For a while, I'd been meaning to write a piece about an aspect of the iPod design which seemed, if not adaptive, to enable iterative design strategies around the functionality i.e. the ability to significantly extend the functionality of the product via firmware upgrades. I remember battery life was increased, additional functions, feeling like I had a whole new iPod, all via one simple firmware upgrade. The physical aspects of the product (control wheel, 4 nav/select buttons, screen) are abstract enough to enable improvements by simply remapping new elements of the software.
In Stewart Brand's original layer diagram - or my clumsily reworked version (as part of this):
... this is like saying Apple are able to change the 'space plan', 'stuff', and even some of the 'services', without having to touch the 'structure', 'skin', or 'site. I liked that.
However, Adam Greenfield points to a more fundamental indication of exactly how the same company and same product breaks some fundamental adaptive design tenets. You can't replace the battery easily. In fact, you might as well buy a new iPod. This is like saying that the 'services' (the equivalent of plumbing, wiring, power etc. in a building) is tied so closely to the 'structure', 'skin' and 'site', that you have to replace the lot. It's as Brand writes about service layers in buildings such as IM Pei's MIT Media Lab: "Getting new cabling through the interior concrete walls - a necessity in such a laboratory - requires bringing in jackhammers." The service layer is fundamental in architecture, but enabling these layers to move at these different paces is what's key:
"A design imperative emerges: An adaptive building has to allow slippage between the differently-paced systems of Site, Structure, Skin, Services, Space plan, and Stuff. Otherwise the slow systems block the flow of the quick ones, and the quick ones tear up the slow ones with their constant change. Embedding the systems together may look efficient at first, but over time it is the opposite, and destructive as well." Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn [UK|US]
Quite so. The 'systems' in Apple's iPod are tightly embedded, which looks and works beautifully. For 18 months. Then total system failure. So Apple need to figure out a way in which different layers of change can be enabled in their product. They've figured out a way of changing some aspects of the software layer easily; separating the service layer from its structural layers would enable users to replace the battery without being faced with the prospect of giving Apple 300 bucks to take the device apart for them. And therefore, as I did, figuring you might as well just buy a new one. Which is great if your credit can temporarily stretch that far, but how many old iPods - otherwise perfectly good devices - are now sitting around gathering dust?
This is why I keep rattling on about adaptive design - it's not only a pragmatic solution, but an elegant way of designing change into things, in this case enabling conservation and innovation to coexist. Brand can overplay things - I intrinsically struggle with a pervasive anti-modern stance - but we keep finding examples of where enabling adaptation would help.