I made my cousin speechless this past week. Literally, mid-sentence, she stopped talking and she stared incredulously at my phone before exclaiming “what the heck is that?” In all the years of carrying the latest and greatest devices I’ve never had such a reaction. Of course, these days pretty much all phones look the same and it’s really hard to carry a device that is so clearly different from the pack. The last such phone was the original iPhone. Before that, it was the RAZR that I’m now carrying. Yes, I can (and have) carried a bright yellow phone in my time, but while the color itself may help differentiate a little, the device itself is still the same blocky form factor that we’ve all come to expect.
While they say that true beauty is on the inside, I’d still like to think that there is room for improvement on the outside too. And the fact that I can think of only two truly differentiating devices in the past ten years is either an indication of a failing memory, or a lack of innovation in the market. To be fair, there have been other attempts to differentiate over the years, such as Nokia’s “lipstick” phone (the Nokia 7280) that had a very small screen and a design that emulated a lipstick (hence the cunning name). But history is written by the winners, and only talks about successful innovation, rather than cool concepts that score highly for the concept, but fail miserably in the real world of consumer purchases. And the reality is that we have roughly the same design now that we did when the iPhone first launched; just with larger, and perhaps thinner, versions.
The next innovation being touted by various OEMs is the curved screen concept, allowing for a smartphone that is ergonomically shaped to how we make calls and so on. But while such a design is a significant innovation in screen design, the fact remains that the device is still the same-sized block that we are using today. What’s more, I remain unconvinced that a curved phone will be more comfortable in my pocket: a curved shape may be even bulkier to store and more likely to crack if the curve lies the wrong way while stored.
Which brings me back to my RAZR. While there are clearly many features missing from the flip phone that I’m carrying (such as a really good camera, a touch screen, a more usable keyboard and so on) the phone is much smaller than the average smartphone. MUCH smaller. As such, it is far more comfortable in my pocket (and stays there far more than its futuristic smartphone brethren). And, as an added advantage, because of the nature of the “flip,” the result is an open device that is “curved” (okay, more accurately, “angled”) into an ideal shape for making calls. The microphone is ideally positioned right next to the mouth which means that phone calls are as good, if not better, than on modern phones.
So perhaps the next great innovation on smartphones is not a curved shape, but flip phone with dual screens. This concept has been tried before: Kyocera launched the Echo in 2011, which was a dual screen “flip,” but was not particularly small. The concept may have been correct, but if so, it was way ahead of its time in terms of available technology. What is required is a flip that is small, sleek, and with two screens that join to be almost seamless.
We’re not there yet, I suspect, in terms of technology but we are getting closer. And OEMs are clearly beginning to think long and hard about how to create the next hardware differentiation rather than continuing to pump out the same, blocky shapes in larger and larger sizes (at least, I hope they are).
Alternatively, we could start looking at combinations of devices; one of the supposed use cases for “smart watches” is so we can keep the over-sized phone/phablet in our pockets or bags. Perhaps a better solution is to carry a small tablet (6-7 inches) and a flip phone that communicates with the tablet, providing the broadband connectivity. After all, according the NPD’s Mobile Phone Track, over 75 percent of basic feature phones sold so far this year are flip phones, not candy bar or other designs, highlighting a strong interest in the form factor. And the flip phone could still be “smart” using Android rather than a dumb OS. Just a thought…