Even those adults who haven’t seen an action figure since blowing up their last G.I. Joe are making room in their lives for toys—often without knowing it. Cell phones, automobiles, even housewares—all have been transformed in recent years from purely utilitarian to positively toy-like.
Call it toyification. In previous eras, new technology was often camouflaged to blend with everyday adult surroundings. The first phonographs, radios, and televisions gained mass acceptance after manufacturers packed the mechanics into wood cabinets suitable for the living room. Likewise, the first typewriters, calculators, and copy machines were sheathed in die-cast metal cases that looked right at home next to filing cabinets and waste containers in corporate offices.
Today’s computers, cell phones, and other electronic gadgets tell a different story. They are neither made nor used like furniture or hardware; instead, they bear an unmistakable resemblance to toys. Few companies have worked the tech-toy association as successfully as Apple, which rebounded from its mid-1990s slump by creating a product that directly challenged the popular image of a dark-shelled PC that sorts through deep reservoirs of code in a clumsy slog to produce spreadsheets or sales reports. The iMac was gumdrop-shaped and cheerful and could be ordered in blueberry, strawberry, tangerine, and grape (thus recasting the emotional experience of choosing a computer into the same sort of choice you once made standing on tippy-toes at the corner ice cream parlor). The same translucent, jewel-colored motif was subsequently copied by manufacturers of staplers, microwaves, and TV sets.
Riding high on this triumph of toyification, Apple has gone on to infuse its entire product line with the whimsy, cheer, and suggestiveness of playthings. Taking a page from kindergarten alphabet books, new operating systems are named after jungle cats. New components have been given the look and feel of yo-yos, or toy spacecraft. (The sci-fi influence runs deep in Apple product design. The white-shelled, streamlined iBooks, for instance, would fit right in amid the pre-grunge futuristic worlds summoned in “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “THX1138,” seminal childhood movies for many of Apple’s die-hard adult fans.) And following the success of its iPod digital music player, Apple released an even smaller, cuter, and more successful line known as the iPod Mini, which came in nursery-room shades of pink, mint green, and powder blue. In all, Apple presents its products as simple on the surface, easy on the eye, friendly in function, and yet containing limitless possibilities. Its products are no mere devices, as any fervent Mac user will attest; they are portals to worlds of wonder.
This isn’t simply a matter of aesthetics. Apple’s first and most lasting innovation was its graphical user interface. Before Apple, personal computers required users to learn and input specific lines of DOS code. In the early 1980s, Apple created the first viable commercial version of a system that incorporated a mouse, a desktop, and simple, cartoon-like icons that could be clicked on, dragged about, and otherwise toyed with. The actual nuts and bolts of computing were hidden behind this decorative partition, the unseen hands of code fattening up whimsical, happy-face icons. Twenty years later, we take this interface for granted, but it’s worth recognizing for what it is: Computing as puppet show.
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