Intelligent Design And The Modern Cellphone

I’ve been mulling this concept over for a long while and it took Josh Helfferich’s single image to bring the concept into sharp focus. My thesis (and you won’t like this) is that every major “flagship” phone in the Western market is now made in the same mold, with the same trade dress, with one goal in mind: to fool the casual observer into thinking that everything is an iPhone. While you can argue on the outliers, the truth is right there. Every major phone released in the past four years has cleaved to this design for dear life. The trend began, popularly, with the Nokia 5800 (some would argue that Meizu M8 was the first) and hasn’t stopped since.

The manufacturers’ fear is palpable and it’s time this parade of phones, designed to mimic one major phone, stopped. It’s bad for the consumer, it’s bad for the carrier, and it’s bad for the manufacturer.

Before iPhone (BI), manufacturers were fat and sassy, designing phones that came in odd cases and featured whimsical Java stacks. No phone looked like any other and every year designers would pick up cues from each other in terms of popularity. One year it was rugged, the next year it was piano black, the next year it was dark red. Phones came and went and they all looked different.

Except for a few lower-end exceptions, going into a phone store now is an exercise in futility. There is no differentiation nor is any phone better than any other. Just as every tablet looks strikingly like every other, every phone looks and works strikingly like every other. The results of this marketing nightmare are clear. You have advertisements that tout meaningless clock speed numbers – as if you’re going to play Angry Birds faster on your Nexus vs. a Samsung Fascinate. Programmers are forced by the vagaries of software to design for the lowest possible system specs. The result, then, is a marketplace cluttered with the same phone, over and over, with various bursts of nervous energy spent championing one identical handset over the rest… until the next model comes out.

This constant churn is what is stagnating the mobile industry. For two years after the iPhone the common refrain was “Why don’t manufacturers hire three (or thirty) really good guys, put them in a room for a year, and make them make the best cellphone ever.” This happened exactly once – at Palm – and never happened again. The closest to this vision, I would argue, is HTC, and they’re no great shakes.

Apple has done their thing. They’re going to keep doing their thing. They are, to continue the evolutionary metaphor, like a very specialized bird with a beak evolved to eat, say, termites. The rest of the birds saw that the termite bird was thriving so they developed a beak to eat ants – they aimed at exactly the wrong target and now each manufacturer is falling over itself – and starving – as it goes after the well-hunted ants in a non-diverse ecosystem.

Samsung, HTC, RIM, LG, Nokia: stop it. Play to your strengths. Reduce your lines to low, mid, and high-end phones. Streamline. The manufacturers took what matters least about the iPhone – the trade dress – and made that an obsession. Take what matters most – Apple’s consumer-focused clarity of vision – and see where that gets you.