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Why don’t manufacturers revisit “classic” phone designs?

By Juan Carlos Bagnell May 10, 2016, 5:00 pm

The launch of the iPhone SE brought up a few interesting questions regarding design. This hardware shell is now going on its fourth year of service with little change from the original iPhone 5. This is an obvious cost savings measure from Apple, and prevents any consumer confusion as to which new phones are “premium” and which phones are more “wallet friendly”. However, if Apple were to recycle a shell, the iPhone 5 was a very well received design. There’s something “classic” or “timeless” about the first iPhone to use a widescreen 16:9 display.

iphone se review pics (31)

We’ve asked questions like these before in videos and on social media. Can a smartphone design ever be considered “classic” like an old car? Ultimately people tend to respond negatively to that idea. Mobile technology cycles faster than automobiles. Phones become obsolete in ways that cars don’t. Yet, when you ask people what their favorite phone hardware style is, you’re as likely to see people celebrate current phones as they are to talk about older devices.


Maybe it was a consumer’s first Galaxy, or an iOS fan who misses the glass back of the iPhone 4. Older audience members might romanticize Blackberrys or Nokias. Occasionally someone even sneaks a Palm Treo or Windows Mobile phone into the discussion. Metal, plastic, leather, or glass, there’s something magical about that first phone which really impresses you.

There’s a consumer trend happening in media appealing to a customer’s sense of nostalgia. Movies rebooting classic TV shows and popular IP. Automobile manufacturers returning to recognizable silhouettes for long running car lines like Mustangs and Challengers. Is it possible that we might see something “retro” happen with electronics? Maybe a candy colored MacBook, or a Nexus 4 redux? Maybe a metal and polycarb Windows Phone or another Kevlar Droid?

It’s been a fascinating transition watching technology companies become lifestyle brands. Even hardware as stodgy as the desktop PC no longer ships in boring old beige boxes. Manufacturers work exceedingly hard on developing a unique design language for their products, lest they be accused of being a copycat or ripping off another company’s look. However, a manufacturer must also evolve its look over time. The market demands progress, so even if a product really resonates with consumers one year, if it’s not “updated” the next year, then that manufacturer has “run out of ideas” or is “getting lazy”.


Smartphones haven’t had the time to resonate with consumers like cars have. While many people can appreciate the lines on a ’67 Stingray or Mustang, it’s a lot more difficult finding audiences with strong feelings about a 2012 HTC or LG. Yet we regularly see and hear comments from people about phones they used to own, or features they miss after upgrading.

Science fiction programming right now loves showing us future phones which are translucent or feature paper-thin, roll-up displays. While cool, they ignore the branding that consumers seem to enjoy showcasing. While we’ll certainly evolve out of current smartphone form factors and designs, will a future “retro” market emerge offering throwbacks to the “early” smartphone days?

For your money, if a company were to deliver an older phone shell with upgraded internals, which phone design would you most want to see return? Drops us a comment below!


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