We’re at the point now in the evolution of smartphones where it’s all a manufacturer can do to release a new model without enduring numerous accusations of copying or otherwise ripping-off another company’s designs. Read enough of the commentary following news of such products, making fun of copycats and predicting who’s going to sue whom next, and you’d swear that smartphone users wanted something new and exciting from phone designs, instead of more of the same retreads. Why is it, then, that the most innovative phone designs fall flat on their faces, while the uninspired “rip-offs” see retail success?
Remember the early Simpsons episode where Homer meets his half-brother and is given the opportunity to design his dream car? With its bubble domes and tail fins, Homer’s car is about as innovative a design as you can ask for. Of course, it ends up being a commercial failure that bankrupts the company behind it. When it comes to phones, as well as cars, consumers don’t really want new ideas, so much as they want old ideas done better; instead of a car that looks like something new and unexpected, they want a regular car that has better performance, is more comfortable, and gets better mileage. We don’t want pico-projectors or odd form factors, but regular-looking phones with higher resolution screens, faster processors, and better battery life.
Looking back on some of the more innovative phone designs we’ve seen in recent years, it’s hard to pick one that found any success.
No one’s about to accuse the Kyocera Echo of not being original. From its dual screens, to its unusual folding mechanism, it wasn’t quite like anything else out there when it arrived last spring. While the phone was far from perfect, we were quite pleased with how Kyocera implemented the dual-screen feature in software.
Despite the extent to which it stood out from the Android crowd, the phone failed to find a following. We could blame chunky hardware, or some software instabilities, but when it comes down to it, smartphone customers just weren’t interested in taking a chance on something so different.
Messing around with screen configurations seems to be a favorite means by which smartphone manufacturers can try to differentiate their offerings. Unfortunately, like with the Echo, it’s rarely a recipe for record sales.
The Samsung Doubletime tried to keep things simpler, using its dual screens to offer a QWERTY clamshell design, instead of a slider. Here, the result is a bit more commercially viable than the Echo, but it still isn’t an Android with a name that gets recognized outside of the smartphone community, not like the much more traditional Galaxy S II.
LG’s tried this trick, too, with about the same degree of success. The DoublePlay tried splitting the familiar QWERTY keyboard in two and sandwiching an extra mini-display right in the middle. In theory, users would take advantage of that auxiliary display to quickly launch apps and switch between them. In practice, they just bought other, more traditional phones.
Sometimes it’s hard to know whether or not we should blame a phone’s failure on its innovative design or other mitigating factors. HP’s Veer offered users a fantastically tiny package for a full-featured smartphone, and one with a hardware QWERTY keyboard, at that. While that sounds like a great alternative for the many smartphone fans that shake their heads at how large mainstream phones have become, it wasn’t enough to convince users to abandon Android for webOS. Maybe that’s primarily the fault of the platform itself, but the unusual design didn’t end up helping in the way that might have been possible.
Should manufacturers just read the writing on the wall and give up on making anything but plain, unadorned slates? I want to say “no”, that the next unusual phone design could be a revolution, and change what we expect from our handsets for the better. Honestly, though, I’m just not convinced. Maybe phones really are like cars, and all we want is last year’s model with a few tweaks.