Make handsets sexy again

09 Aug 2011

Browsing the adverts for mobile phones and related airtime deals in my Sunday paper led me to conclude there is a total lack of innovation in mobile phone design.

The problem applies mostly to smartphones, which today are typically a black, rectangular box with a full touchscreen and soft keys, or a full qwerty keyboard under the screen. Sure, there are some variations on the theme, like slide-out keyboards and kick screens, but the majority of devices conform to the iPhone norm.

It makes me wonder what happened to the innovative designs of just a decade ago. Prior to its partnership with Sony, Ericsson launched the T20 – a small, curvaceous handset that beat market-leader Nokia as its own game (mostly because, it was rumored, Ericsson poached some key design staff from its Finnish rival). Nokia hit back with the 8110 – the so-called ‘banana’ phone featured in the original Matrix movie.

Before either Nordic firm, though, was Motorola, which had great success with the StarTac - the world’s first flip phone. The US firm slumped on the rise of Nokia and Ericsson, but hit back in the mid-2000s with its RAZR – the unit that kick-started a craze for super-slim handsets.

I accept that it’s all become a software game today, but even that market is somewhat lacking to my mind. Touchscreen units all pretty much respond in the same way (you can make it as ‘tactile’ as you like, it’s still a swipe and tap approach), they all feature icon-based graphic user interfaces, and will all pretty much display your text messages as a ‘conversation’ the whole world can read.

Trouble is, where Nokia’s Communicator was clearly aimed at business users and Sony Ericsson’s Walkman at people prioritizing entertainment, today it’s much harder to distinguish between one device and another. In short, modern devices are boring, having abandoned any design ideals in favor of jumping on the latest operating system bandwagon.

Think I’m kidding? Visit your local phone shop. You might see some variations in color – a white iPhone, who’d have thunk it? – but I’ll wager that the majority of phones at the ‘high-end’ look very similar, sport much the same hardware, and operate in much the same way.

The result is that when you walk into your local bar and proudly place your phone on the table, no one cares anymore. “Is that the new iPhone?” “Er, no, it’s a Samsung,” and so on.

You miss out on your five minutes of fame and, crucially, handset makers do too.

So come on device manufacturers, do us a favor and take a chance on something new and exciting and sexy. Yes, make it work as well as today’s conformist smartphones, but wrap it up in something that looks different and will get me noticed in my local nightclub.

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