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Zen and the art of opening an iPhone box

Zen and the art of opening an iPhone box

You do not merely open an iPhone. You are welcomed inside

You do not merely open an iPhone. You are welcomed inside

Tom Vanderbilt | August/September 2019

Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki once described with reverence the joy of drinking from a lacquer soup bowl: “There is an extra beauty in that moment between removing the lid and lifting the bowl to the mouth, when one gazes at the still, silent liquid in the dark depths of the bowl.” It is, he wrote, “a moment of trance”.

There is a similar multisensory pleasure and almost ceremonial anticipation in the packaging for Apple’s iPhone – perhaps unsurprising, given Steve Jobs’s passion for Buddhism. In his book “Inside Apple”, Adam Lashinsky describes the “packaging room” at the firm’s headquarters, where for months “a packaging designer was holed up...performing the most mundane of tasks – opening boxes.” The goal? A box with the perfect drag and friction on opening to introduce an enticing pause as you unveil your new phone.

Packaging is a curious thing. On the one hand it is mere wrapping, soon-to-be rubbish that stands between the consumer and the item to be consumed. Yet it can also pique our lust for what lies within. Apple lavishes almost as much attention on the design of its boxes as it does on their contents. The result is not just an elegant container but a carefully orchestrated ritual. You do not merely open this box as if you were tearing into a packet of crisps. You are welcomed inside.

The ceremony begins before you reach the box itself, which arrives wrapped in plastic film. Unlike many products sheathed in plastic, which require you to traipse to the kitchen for a knife to cut it, on the Apple box you simply pull a plastic tab and the film peels free with elegance and ease. The box for the iPhone X, a simple, white oblong of reinforced cardboard, bears only the word “iPhone” and the Apple logo in a faint, silvery grey. On its surface an embossed, exact-size replica of the iPhone is set in slight relief. It is a monument to the thing itself.

Holding the box aloft with one hand, its lid glides off, dispensing the base into the palm of your other hand with the gentleness of a falling leaf. Below rests the phone, also covered in tabbed wrapping. Pulling this off strikes a perfect balance of ease and resistance. The interior of the box is striking for its unrelenting whiteness. Earlier versions had two trays but Apple has reduced it to one; the earphones used to be encased in a plastic shell, but are now contained in an origami-like paperboard enclosure of remarkable complexity. Since the iPhone 6 was released in 2014, the company has cut the plastic of its boxes by more than half. The packaging is, in a sense, becoming more fleeting – an echo of the phone itself, which has become a vessel for its transitory contents, which now effectively reside in the cloud. How very Buddhist.