The mobile phone industry, like everything, goes through phases. For a while the dominating trend was the race to the smallest design possible, but recently that’s been changing. The “big slab” is the new mainstream, and that poses a big problem for manufacturers: how to avoid blending in. In corporate-speak, it’s called “differentiation,” but really what we’re talking about is the drive to stand out.
That used to be a bit easier when there were more variables involved. There was the race to replace the extendable aerial with the nub antenna, then finally the advance to invisible “intennas.” Form factors were in flux for a long time, too, resulting in heated battles between champions of bar-vs-flip or slider-vs-clamshell. But even in that more diverse climate, OEMs found a way to “monotonize” the landscape. The age of indistinguishable silver flip phones was the result.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t this bad, but it was close.
Today it’s even harder to change up the formula. Manufacturers have found that customers want big displays, but thin casings – they’re even willing to sacrifice battery life to achieve the compromise. So the mythical “perfect device” is necessarily thin in one dimension and wide in the other. Basically, then, the basis for modern smartphone design is the graham cracker. And that’s fine, but it doesn’t leave a lot of room for experimentation. And it’s led to a resurgence of “everything looks the same” syndrome.
Some manufacturers, to their credit, have tried engineering their way around this reality with new design variations. Nokia’s N9/Lumia series is the leading example of how to do something interesting with the slate form factor, but HTC also deserves a lot of credit for replacing their sea of interchangeable 2011 devices with their use of unusual materials and beveled edges in the One X/XL.
But polycarbonate construction and cool design aren’t all that’s gone into these flagship devices. Check out their color. Nokia’s now-famous cyan and HTC’s bone white instantly set these devices apart. They draw the eye more readily than, say, an HTC Incredible- not just because they’re brighter shades, but because they’re uncommon. Granted, these devices are also available in more conventional black and gray color options, but those aren’t the variants being pushed by the carriers. Check out how AT&T positions these on their site:
And even the iPhone, with its lofty position at the top of the mind-share game, gets the “special edition” color treatment from Verizon, with the rarer white one right out front:
The reason? When it comes to phone casings, black is the new silver. More appropriate: it’s the new flip phone. Dull. Old. Played out. Everyone overdid it, and now we’re seeing the consequences. And you know what? I couldn’t be happier.
Think about it: we’re not losing much of anything; black (or at least dark) casing options are still out there, and they still sell very well. But OEMs have finally started embracing the notion that people don’t want their phones to look the same as everyone else’s, and crucially, they don’t always want to use a silicone case to achieve that end. Apple, displaying a wry sense of self-awareness, played to this fact when it got around to debuting its white iPhone 4, many months after launching its black predecessor. It rolled out a tongue-in-cheek retail poster and apple.com landing page with one word.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with “ordinary” devices, those that follow the industry standard conventions and they’ll no doubt continue to outsell their less-popular counterparts. But in a landscape dominated almost entirely by dark, drab rectangular slates, I for one welcome a bit of color. Until we come up with a way to bring flip phones back (which I would adore and will probably write a piece on soon), I’m going to be doing most of my mobile-phone shopping in the alternative-colors sections of carriers’ websites. And I expect that their selections will do nothing but improve as time goes on.
What do you prefer, and why? Drop a line in the comments and sound off about your favorite device colors, hues, tints, and shades. And textures if you want – but don’t get carried away. That’s a topic for a future conversation.