Tech, Now + Beyond

Innovation behind smartphone designing seems to have reached its end

Forget the notches, I’d like to see some folding and holographs please.

In April 1973, a man called Martin Cooper – then a senior engineer at Motorola – made the first cell phone call. The device he used, though unlike any cell phone today’s generation of smartphone users are used to, was revolutionary. It was large, weighed a kilo – hefty enough to knock someone out – and tapered at both ends much like the corded mouthpiece of a rotary phone. A long antenna stretched atop and deep keys graced the number pad. It took around 10 hours to charge and at full-charge offered only 30 minutes of talk time. Its value was thousands of dollars.

Forty-six years later and the cell phones of the 70s have exponentially evolved into the smartphones of today. Their capabilities have far surpassed the OG cell phone and continue to do so as new interfaces are introduced on the regular. But what of its physical design?

The 90s and early 2000s was a time of competing designs when brands like Blackberry, Nokia, Samsung, Motorola, competed on an aesthetic level. We saw simple handhelds, sliding keyboards, swiveling keyboards, flip phones, full keyboards, a multitude of colors, and more. 

Then 2007 made history as the first Apple iPhone was released. It’s far from being the first touchscreen smartphone – that honor belongs to IBM Simon released in 1992 – but it’s definitely the brand that has had the most impact in smartphone history in spite of other brands like LG, Samsung, and Nokia also working on touchscreen technology at the time.

The competition sparked a fire and the smartphone market lit up with a focus on tech advancement. Sensitive touchscreens, better interactivity, quicker operating systems, more apps, better camera quality, higher resolutions – the advancements kept rolling out. 

However, in the chase, the smartphone market seems to have homogenized in terms of design. The ‘less is more’ mantra has been neatly folded into a majority of product designs. These designs now only seem to differ in the minimal sense. Achieving a full-screen has become a driving focus along with a strive for fewer notches, buttons and jacks. 

The materials used by each brand do lend a different feel and look to each smartphone. Overall, though, most feature the same thin, rectangular metal with an almost full-screen. In a way, the similar designs do add to user-friendliness as any brand-hopping would make for a seamless switch in hardware but it comes at the cost of product designers sticking with the tried-and-tested formula of the same metal slab look. Where’s the push for innovation?

Impossibly-thin glass smartphones, ones that are flexible, foldable, embedded within earphones, feature pop-up hardware, are round, or square, or oblong? Or maybe they’re diamond-like or meshed with a gaming device? Perhaps like a roll-up banner? A neatly-filed in screen inside, to be pulled out in as much length as needed.

These are all fun concepts to consider and are being considered – foldable tech is well on its way! – but it’s been over a decade. We have yet to see a new smartphone in the market that stands out from the crowd. And considering the number of technological breakthroughs we’ve had in the past 12 years, expecting diversity in smartphone design is the least we can hope for.