Why do all smartphones look the same?

Why do all smartphones look the same?
There was a peculiar period of time in phone history just before the iPhone revolution but right after the boring brick-sized handsets of old. During this period, it looked as if the cornucopia of phone design had opened, and devices of all shapes and colors began to emerge. I remember seeing the Nokia N-GAGE model for the first time and thinking: “Wow, that looks like something right out of a Star Trek episode”. Flip phones, sliders, music phones, peculiarly shaped devices, lifestyle statements, everything was out there. 

Just look at them! They all look like something that came out of a wacky inventor’s shed. I’m getting goosebumps from that picture alone. Were those phone mutations amazingly functional, efficient, and powerful? Of course not! Some of these strange devices were hardly usable at all. But they had the power to get people excited. And I don’t get that feeling anymore despite the fact that in my pocket lies a smartphone with the computational power to probably land a spacecraft on Mars. How did we end up with these run-of-the-mill rectangular slabs that all look the same? Time to find out!

Form over function

History lessons aside, the first phones were built with the sole purpose of handling a call. Big antennas, tiny screens, and little to no design considerations. Technology went forward, though, and phones came to a point where they didn’t cost an arm and a leg. That’s when manufacturers started to think about factors like portability, design, and “coolness”.

The new millennium took off with flip phones for the ladies, bright-colored teen-centric models with interchangeable panels, gadget phones for the nerds, chat phones for the social type, and formal-looking business devices. No matter what subculture you belonged to, there was a phone for you. Fast forward to 2007 when things took an unexpected turn.

When the apple is ripe

There’s no denying that Apple flipped things around back in 2007 with the introduction of the original iPhone. The company showed the world what the phone of the future was going to look like. Sure, there were smartphones before the iPhone, but their business-oriented clunky interface and conservative aesthetics pushed the largest chunk of consumers away. Others didn’t give up without a fight, though. The Blackberries and the Nokias held their ground for a while with Symbian and BBOS weaponry, but they were just delaying the inevitable.

Soon enough, the most innovative phone became the most copied one, lawsuits or not, and the great phone unification began. Symbian, WebOS, and Bada all became just a memory of those fallen soldiers and gave way to the surviving duo - Android and iOS. And on the hardware front, the physical keyboard abdicated and vacated the throne for a newly crowned king - the touchscreen.

Big screen wars

It quickly became obvious that bigger screens offered a better experience for users. Touchscreen interfaces made things a lot easier and if you don’t believe me, just try sending a message on an old keypad-equipped phone or calling someone for that matter. Meanwhile, network speeds improved, and watching streamed content became a reality. Phone cameras also evolved and generally, there were far more things you could do on a phone that benefited from a bigger screen.

All those pixels required power, though, and with bigger screens came bigger batteries. Slapping two large rectangular pieces together doesn’t leave much room for design choices. Manufacturers started an arms race to offer the biggest possible display and we got to a point of calling the devices Phablets (you know, a crossbreed between a phone and a tablet). Displays are displays though, not much different from one another on the outside. And when a phone is 80% display it’s 80% similar to every other phone on the market.

Sure, manufacturers squeezed every last drop of inspiration offering things like 2.5D glass, little curves around the display, ever so tiny bezels, and the infamous notches. There was even a tiny burst of inspiration called modular phones, but it was a really hard thing to pull off, and people didn’t pay attention or care. So modular phones were put on the dusty shelf of “what could’ve been” and forgotten. The final result was something like this:

So, why are all phones the same?

  • Bezelless display designs and larger batteries are cool, but also a limiting factor. Phones are practically built around their screens and batteries, leaving little room for variety
  • At the end of the day, people like premium stuff that they’re used to and manufacturers keep choosing the safe option. It’s possibly why all phones are made of glass and metal now
  • Most design differences in modern phones are obscured by a case anyway
  • Hardware keyboards are practically obsolete, and experiments like modular designs and super-personalization (like MotoMaker) never took off
  • We're left with only two operating systems: Android and iOS. Every iPhone is an iPhone, and every Android phone looks and behaves much like the next one
  • Everybody copies everyone. No company is ashamed to copy a feature or design element from another. At the same time, few companies are willing to experiment with new ideas as these rarely pay off

That’s pretty much it. We’re doomed to carry around boring phones that all look the same. Wait a second! When there’s life, there’s hope or in this case, when there’s technology progress, things won’t stay still. At least, not for long.

Bending the rules

Slowly and in a comfortable way we all created this vicious circle. Smartphone manufacturers gave people what they needed and wanted but they kept doing it for so long that people got really used to glass sandwiches, huge screens, and multi-camera systems. I’m not saying that this design is bad. It wouldn’t have stuck for so long if it was. After all, phones ended up looking the same for so long because people kept buying into the same design, among all other things. Hopefully, some unsung engineering heroes in the deep skunkworks laboratories thought it was time for a change. And that’s how flexible displays were born.

Things probably didn’t happen in such a romantic way and flexible display technology has been around for many years. Thing is, at a certain point manufacturers decided that changing the status quo is worth the huge financial risk and we got the Folds and the Flips of today. It’s really interesting because we’re seeing the first substantial change in smartphone design in more than a decade. Whether it is going to stick is an open question, but foldable smartphones already resurrected one design from the past (the flip phone) and gave birth to another (the folding tablet).

I guess the final question is not “Why do all phones look the same”, but “Do people really need a different design”. Are we ready for a change? Is the necessary technology in place? Let’s hope the current pandemic won’t snap the neck of the fragile change that’s emerging and we’re going to see another chapter in the great book of technology.

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