The State of Smartphone Design
The smartphone industry has come a long way in an incredibly short period of time. In one swift decade, we’ve moved on from the clunky PDA style phone hybrids to all-in-one replacements for a raft of outdated devices. This has been aided by typically exponential progress in computing power (see Moore’s Law), along with fierce competition between manufacturers in what is the fastest growing industry ever, with 2 billion consumers expected to be using smartphones by 2016.
A good source of this exceptional rise to power has come from the experimentation of form factor. We’ve seen all sorts of shapes and sizes appear over the last few years, with designers experimenting hugely with what could be considered practical. This is especially true when you consider that crowd-funding websites are now adding weight to ideas from creators that would usually go unnoticed. When looked at from afar this experimentation can be described as a risky strategy, where a company has no real idea if its idea will catch on and set a trend until the product is on the shelves, but one way or another we’ve started to settle into a rhythm through those means, and that’s what I want to look at today.
Laptop sales are still declining and tablet sales are now beginning to follow suit, while our smartphones evolve to become what we use for almost every digital activity, and show few signs of slowing down. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing of course; consumers wouldn’t have switched to a mobile-focused world if it wasn’t a pragmatic solution to their perceived issues, and the trend is not all-encompassing. On the other hand, smartphones by design aren’t suitable to exist on the verge of computing power due to their weight and space constraints, and so they won’t be replacing our gaming PCs, or dedicated video/audio editing workstations in the near future, despite smartphone popularity increasing market focus on catering for it as a preferred platform. Startups like Jibe Tech want to change this with their Remix OS devices of course, but generally speaking, we’re not there yet.
But in some respects, the nature of design choice in the smartphone industry is something that has stagnated. In the earlier era of mobile phones, what set one model apart from a competitor was usually its physical design. It doesn’t seem so long ago that the drive was to create the smallest mobile phone possible, with something like the Motorola Razr being a popular result of that race. How powerful was it? We didn’t really care, because it suited our needs; it performed as we expected. More ‘productivity’ focused designs were by necessity more bulky, which brought with them concerns over looks and comfort, with power users being one of the few demographics to not agonize over aesthetics. Fashion is always an important factor when considering a gadget that we carry around with us on our person and spend a large amount of our time using, and that won’t change any time soon.
Everyone Loves a Candybar
However, the performance of modern phones at most price ranges has begun to become largely acceptable, meaning that we’re starting to find that the internals of our smartphones don’t mean as much as they once did, although admittedly enthusiasts and developers will always look more closely at hardware than your average user. I see this abundance of adequate performance as a potential opportunity for a renaissance in smartphone design; the fact is that a normal consumer is generally pleased by the ability and quality of most new handsets in areas like the software, camera and battery life, leaving more room for variation in physical style. Looking at the history of mobile devices, we can see a huge range of different physical styles, but invariably the modern consumer seems to have favored the candybar form factor. If you’re not certain what that is, look at the phone in your hand, and the majority of those around you. Almost every phone released nowadays is similar in shape; a simple slab of plastic, metal and glass, a mini-monolith in your palm.
This makes perfect sense. There are a lot of rectangular electronics to fit inside your smartphone, and since capacitive touchscreens made onscreen keyboards bearable there was less need for anything on the front apart from the display. But personally, it’s a little boring. A lot of work now specifically goes into the rear of modern devices, where manufacturers have more real estate to attempt to communicate some sort of design language. On the front, for the most part, they’re limited to choosing the type or style of on-screen or off-screen buttons, whether or not there are speaker grills, the size of bezels, and whether the corners are rounded or squared off. Should the front facing camera go on the left or right? Does it even matter? Taking direction from the past is decidedly not always a recipe for success, as evolution generally favors the best example of form. However, given the current era I feel that it’s worth reminding ourselves of the plethora of designs that came before, just to break up the monotony.
The Flip Phone
Flip phones were a reaction to the chunky bricks that preceded them, giving the same functionality whilst almost literally halving their size. There is still something tangibly satisfying about ending a call using the one terminal motion of flipping closed your palm, and the angled nature of the flip phone tends to fit the face better, bringing the speaker and microphone closer to where they should be. Also, you get a nifty little display on the outside of your device for checking things like notifications, battery level, or the time, something that is a major use-case for the existence of many peripherals, although to do that you’d still need to remove the phone from your pocket. On the negative side, your screen size suffers hugely as it is limited to half of the overall phone, and battery does too for the same reason.
Next, the clamshell. With this form factor you gain screen size and a physical keyboard, without losing that handy second display. This is an excellent design for productivity applications – the qwerty keyboard aids accurate typing with physical feedback, and with the screen size back at a reasonable level you can more comfortably work on documents and digest web pages. The LG model below even has room for a D-pad which would be great for games, although they’d need to be programmed to make use of it properly. The downsides of this design are usually compromises when it comes to battery size, which would of course need to be thinner to fit into a one half of the device, added bulk for necessities like hinges, and most importantly, a downright horrible portrait-orientation user experience. Slide-out keyboards are basically the same idea and do go some way to negating that last point, as they can almost pass themselves off as a candybar when in their compact form. Still though, we’ve not seen a device that removes the bulk that accompanies this adaptable shape.
Blackberry was traditionally pushing its all-in-one design, where the display sat above a compact physical keyboard and it proved extremely popular for years. The consumer seemed to like the keyboard for accurate typing, and benefited from the otherwise uncomplicated style, which left room for a decently sized battery. This has been echoed even in their modern phones like the Passport, although the odd aspect ratio of the screen made it a bit of a wildcard. But just like flip phones, the trade off here is the screen-to-body size ratio, something that has become very highly valued, and Blackberry’s failure to recognize this important fact doomed their profitable position as a smartphone market leader. They did attempt to address the balance with some of their more recent models like the Z30, and recent leaks of one of their upcoming devices show a similar strategy, proving the advantages of the form. However, it is extremely unlikely that the Canadian company will dedicate themselves to this, as the absence of a physical keyboard is something that would discourage a relatively small but disproportionately vocal audience.
Now, many of us don’t like using the word ‘Phablet’ but you have to admit that it does bring to mind a specific type of device. Samsung were almost universally derided for their initial Galaxy Note with its 5.3″ display, but by the time the second version appeared a year later even the nay-sayers had begun to take notice. Now it’s almost a given that any major flagship will launch with a screen above the 5″ threshold, with ‘Mini’ versions strictly optional, or lacking in horsepower. Most manufacturers have a plus-sized model available though, and Google themselves showed their phablet support with their Nexus 6 last year, ensuring developers were testing their apps properly on these ubiquitous large devices. As mentioned before, tablet sales are slowing, and you can bet that the reason for that is the existence of these pocketable contenders. People clearly want to do more on the move, and the simple advantage of a large display makes so many common activities easier, or in the case of media consumption, more enjoyable. These devices also encourage productivity, making the document or spreadsheet editing experience more similar to that of a desktop machine, and enabling things like application multi-tasking on OEM skins. Android isn’t really designed for this kind of screen size; the Nexus 6 (and Lollipop) notably lacking any specific features that take advantage of its dimensions is a clear indicator of this, but that hasn’t prevented this form factor from becoming very common due particularly to specific software tweaks and accessories like styluses from third parties.
The Campaign Against Bezels
More recently, there has been a clear obsession with bezel size, especially noticeable in the myriad design concepts that appear in the lead up to new smartphone launches. Again, the idea here is that the user can benefit from a larger display, whilst minimizing the overall footprint of the phone and keeping it portable. This makes a lot of sense as really you don’t need much to go on the front of your smartphone, and considering that in most apps, navigation and overflow buttons are near the top of the display, those with smaller hands really can appreciate not having to suffer the gymnastics that can easily lead to a dropped handset. Some of the concepts that float around are plain ridiculous of course, with many designers apparently unaware that bezels actually help the user not continually press the edges of the screen during use, but because the authors aren’t constrained by actually having to build these phones, amateur concepts generally give us a good indication of what people actually want out of smartphone design; clean, sleek lines, minimal overall design, a few accents and premium materials throughout.
Another fairly recent development is that of curved or flexible displays. We haven’t got to the point where it’s a necessary feature yet, but after the release of the Galaxy S6 Edge and G4 this year, curved smartphones are definitely mainstream now. It usually takes a large or popular manufacturer to commit to an idea for it to become noticed, and now that Samsung has released a curved version of arguably their most popular range of phones, and marketed it as extensively as their traditional model, it’s clear that this design element isn’t going away any time soon. This trend became notable in 2013, after Samsung and LG released their Galaxy Round and G Flex models respectively, both with different ideas as to what a curved phone should be. The Galaxy Round probably got it wrong, all things considered, but its horizontal curvature allowed specific software features like their ‘roll effect’, which displayed notifications and useful information if the user had the Round face-up on a table and rolled it towards them. There are similar software benefits made possible by the sloped edge design that started with the Youm concepts and the Galaxy Note Edge. However, it’s the vertically curved display that may catch-on, especially considering the previously mentioned movement towards large smartphones, and there are a few good reasons for that.
Curving a smartphone along its vertical axis brings the top of the smartphone closer to where your thumb is, making it easier to reach the top of the display. Again, considering how many buttons are placed near the top of apps, along with the constantly used notification shade and quick settings, this kind of benefit can become very useful when looking at bigger form factors. Also, similar to the flip phones of old, vertical curves bring the microphone close to your mouth, and the earpiece close to your ear, hugging your face in a more natural way. This should improve call quality for both users, and definitely aids things like noise cancellation, where the phone has an even clearer idea of what audio should be kept, and what is background noise. There are other smaller advantages too, like the reduction in reflections on a curved display, excellent for when watching videos, and the simple fact that the curved shape fits your palm and pocket better, making the handset more comfortable to use. Lastly, there’s a potential benefit in terms of durability too. If a flat smartphone is dropped on to a flat surface on its front, there’s a high chance that the display will take the brunt of the shockwave, shattering the glass if the fall is from a height. Curving the phone brings the display away from direct contact with the floor, improving the chances of it coming away unscathed, as well as reducing the probability of you scratching it on a surface.
The Flexible and the Rugged
Phones like LG’s Flex and Flex 2 are also flexible, meaning that they’re less likely to be damaged by being bent, or having any stress put on them when being shoved into pockets or bags, something the iPhone 6+ could have really benefited from. We’ll ignore LG’s ‘self-healing’ backs for the moment, but durability is an underrated and important feature when it comes to devices we use every day. It’s clear we’ll be seeing more ‘fixed’ curved phones like the G4 and Samsung Nexus S moving forward, with LG being so confident in this fact, they predicted that almost half of the smartphone market will feature this design by 2018. Premium materials can get in the way of durability of course, and considering how highly those materials are currently valued it’s clear that flexibility won’t be particularly common until someone can figure out a way of joining the two ideals. For now though, if you want a rugged phone, you’ll need to stick to specifically designed models like Kyocera’s range and deal with their generally lower specs, or try to reach a compromise with water and dust-proof flagships like Sony’s Xperias, or the Galaxy S5.
So where’s all of this leading? We have a rich history and broad canvas of smartphone design to take influence from, and we’re starting to see the kind of technology that could make previously fantastical form-factors possible. An unnamed Samsung Display insider said earlier this year that “The industry believes that the commercialization of foldable smartphones will be possible in 2016”, and there’s no shortage of concepts for this kind of idea. Recent patents from Samsung back up this direction, showing foldable dual-screen designs and more. LG has also patented its own ideas and announced their expectations in the form of the roadmap laid out below. This kind of form-factor combines a number of the advantages from the examples we’ve looked at so far, and solves many of the problems that those solutions inevitably produce. The most obvious improvement here is the combination of a large screen, but a small overall size. By being able to fold your device in half, or in to thirds, you double or triple the size of your display, meaning the folded footprint of your phone remains easily pocketable. This means that your smartphone instantly transcends the lines between phone, phablet and tablet, making portable media consumption better by an order of magnitude.
Another great plus of foldable devices with large screens is that you could replicate full-size keyboards, by bending the display and propping it up to 60-80 degree angle, and turning the bottom half into a keyboard that sits flat on a desk. Touch typers everywhere would gain from this implementation, although it isn’t likely to solve the issue of lack of physical feedback while typing. Similarly planned but not realized yet is the world of rollable smartphones. This design takes the idea that the display can be wrapped around a cylinder that houses the core components, and is unfurled to provide a screen as large as you need. This is even further into the future than the foldable smartphone, but it performs the same kind of function, answering the same questions. Small size when inactive, maintaining portability, large size when in use, promoting productivity. But in reality, we’re not going to see really compelling versions of these form factors for a few years. The first that come to market could well be bulky, or just not perform well, due to having to cram hardware into ever smaller profiles. Battery life would definitely suffer, because currently no one has come up with battery that can bend.
Since the practical implementation of the modern smartphone, we’ve essentially been fighting a battle on the fronts of productivity and performance and therefore the design has been forced, to a degree at least, to mold itself around the hardware. The straight candybar shape is useful for fitting circuit boards and components inside, allows for landscape and portrait display orientation, and stuck because it’s a simple way of achieving those goals. Naturally, we as users have settled almost unanimously on smartphones favoring this form factor, being the most common available. While this is no bad thing, given the points above, there is room to try to benefit the industry as a whole by having manufacturers spend more time looking at their designs, and less at the specifications of the device. We’ve seen how a bit of experimentation in physical design can quickly benefit the user where software cannot, and even if the design doesn’t work the first time around, future revisions can provide a solution to any of the problems faced. We’re talking mostly about flagships here, where the design element becomes extremely important to the customer who’s spending upwards of $700 on their new bit of kit, but it’s the side projects, the concepts and the prototypes that will lead the way in this process of evolution.
So here’s to R&D, trial and error, and the wacky ideas of those looking to further the industry. I think there’s a lot of potential beyond what we’ve become accustomed to, and personally I’m particularly excited to see what’s next in smartphone design.
What do you think of the design of current smartphones?