According to The Independent, demand hit almost 367 million in September, a record for the third quarter of any year to date. And our appetite for the latest must-have model shows no sign of abating. We’re seduced by augmented reality, infinity display screens, wireless charging… but who’s making the smartphone we really need? The beautiful, technically on-point device that can withstand the way we live our lives – the 2am fall from our pockets, the recreational spin with our washing, the grabbing hands of our under-threes.
CNet’s Executive Editor, David Carnoy called out this pervasive flaw in 2015, saying: “The fact is today’s high-end smartphones are incredibly well-designed, sleek electronic devices – except for the fact that they require a companion accessory to safely survive day-to-day living with their human owners. It’s a weird conceit, and one that we’ve all grown to accept.”
Two and half years later, very little has changed. Whilst the range of protective accessories grows ever more comprehensive, from military-grade cases to everything-proof covers, little has been done to address the fragility of the smartphone itself – as illustrated by those mobile phone providers offering one free screen replacement as standard on certain models. Where’s the hard-wearing tech, as in the Nokia days of old, that stands up to the way we work and play?
You might argue that technology moves on so quickly now, nobody needs a phone to last for years. It’s a fair point, except that it takes seconds to crack a screen and the odds are it happens in the first month of your two-year contract.
But what if we didn’t have to be so precious about our handsets; if we could show them off without worrying about scratches and interact with them like Zippos, instead of fragile, luxury objects. They’re always going to fly out of our hands and land somewhere inconvenient. Why not embrace this in their design with beautiful details that make them secure in hand, or create phones that grow more attractive the more knocks they take? Who says beautiful things can’t also be practical?
We started thinking about this back in 2010, designing Mercury for Inq Mobile – a smartphone with a fully stainless steel body, intended to ‘wear in’ and adopt character instead of being covered up in a case, and with curvature-continuous body designed to slide into your hand, not out. A change in Inq’s business model meant the product was stopped just short of reaching the market, but it had the potential to be a game-changer and I stand by it.
I’m not saying there isn’t a place for brilliant accessories; of course there is, and they are exciting projects in their own right. I’m saying there’s also a need for great standalone products that are enhanced by these accessories, not codependent. As designers, it’s our responsibility to challenge the norm, and with smartphones that means placing durability on an equal footing with technical innovation and aesthetic. As consumers, it’s our job to demand more – not just stronger cases and cheaper insurance, but lifeproof models in the first place.
So I’m throwing down the gauntlet for 2018: who is going to release a smartphone for the real world? When you’re ready, let’s talk.