“Doesn’t this look like the _____” (fill gap with phone name)
Well, that is a comment that is becoming increasingly routine in the phone world these days. And we saw its latest reiteration when some purported images of the OnePlus 5 leaked out – people lost no time in drawing comparisons with the iPhone 7 Plus, thanks to the curves and the dual camera set-up. And the OP5 is in pretty good company – it is almost rare to see a phone that features a radically different design from whatever’s out there in the market. Yes, there were some who screamed ecstatically when Andy Rubin’s Essential phone was shown last week, but what caught the eye there were the absence of bezels (please line up all those who have seen that before) and the idea of the mod placement… oh yes, and the use of titanium (which had its moment of glory as being superior to aluminium which is only – only – used for spaceships and aircraft).
Let’s get one thing clear – smartphones have never quite looked as similar as they have over the past few years in terms of design. Yes, there will be the odd, eccentric use of material (Pixel) and colors (Oi, Product Red). But if you are looking at shapes and form factors, it seems innovation left the smartphone building a long time ago, and the landlords prompted sealed off its entry.
Sounds too harsh? Well, then consider the facts. Innovation in smartphone design has now become a matter of getting a few curves or straight lines in, using different colors, how one hides or highlights those antenna bands, and the materials (glass, titanium, aluminum, recycled molasses…take your pick!). There are dozens of phones out there that look like iPhone clones, and HTC has its own followers too, as do others (we recall at least one manufacturer who got inspired by the Sandstone Finish back of the OnePlus One). But at the end of the day, the changes are basically in terms of curves, straight lines and materials used. It is almost as if the smartphone industry has taken a leaf out of Ed Sheeran’s lyric book and is singing “I am in love with the shape of you” to candybars.
And no, contrary to what some might say, this was not always the case. Hit the rewind button to go back to the earlier part of the millennium, and you would be amazed to see the sort of phone form factors that were there in the market. Even the “boring” Nokia had experimented with a circular keypad (Nokian3650), had tried a keyboard that could flip across the display to open into a “full” keyboard (Nokia 6800), even experimented with a teardrop like form factor (the 7600) and had tried to blend in curves and straight lines in an unorthodox mix in the the N-Gage series as it tried to make the first mobile phone console. Even in candy bar mode, like the N95, it threw in slider form factors, with keyboards and other controls that slid in and out under the display. Then, of course, there was Motorola with its iconic RAZR and PEBL flip phones. Sony (Ericsson) had the P Series, which had a keyboard that could be flicked open to reveal a touchscreen below, and had its own take on flip phones – more rounded and less edgy than the RAZR. And of course, BlackBerry, Palm, and iMate had their own design as well. As someone who has been there, let me assure you that a visit to a phone dealer in 2007 meant seeing at least half a dozen radically different phones in terms of appearance.
That, alas, is no longer the case. Today, you might get a choice of color and materials, but at the end of the day, you are staring at the same candybar with a touchscreen. And contrary to what many say, I am not laying the blame at the smartphone revolution. The first Android phone, the G1, was a slider that could be used in portrait as well as in landscape mode, with or without a proper keyboard. Motorola had thrown the design kitchen sink at some of its Android devices – the Milestone had a slide out QWERTY keyboard, and the FlipOut was square-shaped with a keyboard that revolved out from underneath. Nokia too tried the square form factor with a slide-out keyboard with the X5-01 and well, went totally box like with the E90 Communicator. HTC had also thrown a slightly curved “chin” in the Hero and even combined a QWERTY with a touchscreen in the delectably compact and slightly curved Chacha.
All of which is pretty much a far cry from what we get today – it is like watching a standard model sashay down the ramp with slightly different clothes and accessories. I don’t exactly know what has led to this – ease of manufacturing similar devices (not so many moulds to play around with), a risk-free approach, a lack of will to try something different…but whatever it is, it is pretty much made today’s smartphone increasingly predictable in terms of appearance and made design more subtle than radical. Which is a bit of a pity really.
Yes, phones might be more powerful than they ever were. But they pretty much look the same in terms of form factor and design.