Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The iPhone is not the best phone that will ever be

Discussions like the recently popular The Samsung Galaxy S III:  The First Smartphone Designed Entirely By Lawyers are continuing a trend of misguided design criticism that, were it directed against Apple would be greeting with accusations of a vast conspiracy.

This – and defending any reasonable criticism – is not just fanboiism, but speaks to something more insidious.

Let me start with a rather good comment by Nee Austin (whoever that is) on that same blog:
This article may be true in the technical sense, but in the design sense this commentary is not necessarily true.
If Samsung actually set out designing a phone with a goal to be great, original, and design-innovative, they can do that naturally and not run afoul Apple's trade dress patent. With your commentary you are basically agreeing that iphones are the gold standard and that it's not possible to have a great, original, non-iphone, design. I disagree.
There's absolutely nothing wrong with a phone that does not look like an iphone.
The "gold standard" is a good attempt to put a name to something I have encountered before. The concept that not only is some beloved product the best, but the best that could ever be. I have seen the same in many other product categories. For a good example, I think of firearms, and the insane love some profess for the 1911 pistol, even to deriding plastic guns fully twenty years after the Glock gained mass adoption, and changed the industry.

This is not an academic discussion. When designers and developers disregard every other platform, they do a disservice to their clients, and the end users. They do a massive disservice to the practice of design, development and the mobile industry as a whole.

It leads to cherrypicking data, and such an insular view of the world that I have encountered quite direct  consequences. Why I am I the only one with a Blackberry? Out of 50 developers, no one else could spring for the $16.50 off eBay for a used Curve to test products?

But let's speak to the specific complaints around the form factor. I have put some thought (and paid work) into the ergonomics of handheld devices. I have done projects where we designed some hardware, and I have a LOT of devices around as you may have noticed, so get used to the differences between them.

The iPhone, and a lot of the clones, are ergonomically suspect. And my anecdotal observation bears this out. They don't fit the ear, when used as phones, they are hard to grasp, and almost impossible to orient correctly without looking at the device.

Let's take something you all will think is ugly, my wife's Casio. Rugged is itself something useful as hell; her phone always works, whether it's raining, or the baby just chewed on it and then dropped it. But the shapes work for me. No one picks it up wrong, or drops it accidentally:

If anything, I see the opposite of the "lawyers designed this phone." I see the recent couple years of designs by HTC, Samsung and others as imposed from higher. I'd believe the management rejected the cool, innovative designs that their studios came up with in favor of "iPhone Killers" and now they are accepting of [really quite minor] deviations from that, in the interest of more usable, useful and differentiable devices.

I read these (again, very minor) design changes as proof that Samsung is not being "me too," but finally taking cues from some of their crazy concepts, and striking out on their own as much as they are allowed to by a relatively conservative management, and a frankly sorta whiny, closed-minded tech press. (And if you don't think they have crazy concepts, you haven't seen anything being designed; these guys come up with hundreds of concepts that make it to physical models, and dozens that make it to having demo electronics embedded.)

If we, as a community, keep believing everything Apple does is perfect (even when they contradict themselves), and dismiss everything else as cheap imitations, we're going to continue to encourage a lack of innovation, or be caught flat-footed when something else does emerge.

And if you should have learned anything from history (not to even mention the history of technology) it's that things will change, in ways hardly anyone predicted, and people will be left behind. Open your mind and you at least have a chance of surviving it.


A said...

thank god someone pointed it out - i have been forever in the search of a phone that is not an iphone wannabe but is a well designed phone - i used to love the palm phones and even now wonder if we will see something truly innovative as a phone concept that is original and not apple like. lets hope so. :)

MMM said...

Indeed; and great to find this via the Carnival of the Mobilists.

Apple did well with integration and friendliness. Much of the tech press so hated their mobiles and didn't have words that the constant/loud bickering about what isn't Apple tends to rise to the top.

Its not the best slab touchscreen mobile... I'd argue the N9 is the crest of the UI aspect, and Samsung's Wave models had more elegance in design if we look at creases and buttons.

That's not to say that better designs weren't before. I still like the Treo over the BB for QWERTY designs. And the N95/N96/N81/N85/N86 set as one of the better slider intrepretations. Then there's that SE T616 - buttons on that mobile were a dream.

There's a lot that was and will be. All we are seeing now is a trend that is itching for something to break it. I look forward to whatever gets out of labs - whether or not it makes the thrones of noise as being the best, strongest, prettiest ever by *some* mobile tech press outlets.

john alex said...

nice write up. Top 3 Upcoming Phones with Insane features.