Design Homogenization in Mobile Industry (Essay seeking response)

This is a paper I did for university and I wanted to know what you guys think. I study Product Design btw.

In the idealistic capitalist society, companies compete to create new and improved ways to solve the needs of the consumer. Unfortunately, the consumer electronics industry has been far less than ideal. Specifically, the smartphone market has suffered from a plethora of devices that simply copy designs and match internal components. As are the cases between Apple’s iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy lines, as well as Nokia’s Lumia and HTC’s coming Windows Phone lines, it seems that competition in the smartphone market has lead to homogenization instead of innovation.

While innovation will no doubt lead to others implementing the improved designs, a great change toward homogenization occurred during the transition from analog interaction to digital interaction. Cellphones previously lacked large displays or touch screens. The interaction and user interface was in its physical design and tactile keys. Antennae were raised, microphones were flipped open, and buttons were pressed. In this analogue age of cellphones, product design played a large role in improving the user experience. In 1994, the Nokia 2110 stunned consumers with its shockingly small size and short antennae. This set Nokia apart from Motorola’s cell phone dominance. As phones became thinner and smaller, a variety of different form factors were developed in search of the best user interface. Designers were inventive and risk taking. Manufacturers would play with "candy bar" phones, "clamshell" phones, slide-out keyboards, swiveling screens, and even combinations of mechanisms. This tapered off with the adoption of touch screen technology into the mainstream market. Design stagnated and took less risk. The form factor eventually boiled down to a large screen on a black slab. In this digital era of interaction almost all input is done almost completely through the screen. The role of the physical product design has been diminished to providing a screen. While industrial design is about removing what is not necessary, has the market arrived at this form factor because it is the most efficient or because manufacturers are afraid to take risk? With how much mimicking occurs within the field it seems that companies do not have faith in what their designers can make. Instead of trusting what its designers can do to be different or better they copy the work of what’s proven to sell.

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Homogenization has resulted from manufacturers chasing each other. Manufacturers around 2004 raced to create the thinnest handsets, which was highlighted by the massive success of the Motorola RAZR. With the release of the Apple iPhone in 2007 the race turned to make touchscreens. Currently, since the majority of devices are touchscreens, the race has turned to making larger screens. Heavy weight champions of the smartphone market are releasing devices with 4 to 5 inch screens. In 2012 alone HTC released the Titan II and One X with 4.7-inch screens, LG released the Optimus Vu at 5-inches, Samsung released the Galaxy S III at 4.8-inches and Galaxy Note II at 5.5-inches, and Apple finally increased their screen size to 4 inches with the iPhone 5. These sizes would have been laughed at before, are still being questioned today, and are being forced into the market. When the HTC HD2 was released in 2010 it received many reviews that were similar to CNET’s: "the smartphone demands your attention and we don’t deny it’s a beast. In fact, we suspect its size will be a turnoff for some; it’s not exactly the most pocketable device and it’s quite a handful to hold while on a call"[1]. Since then phones have increased and many journalists have described fatigue with this trend of extremely large phones. Speaking of the Galaxy Note in 2012, BGR’s Jonathan S Geller stated that it "feels like it is too big to be taken seriously. That’s the end of it… this is a device fit for use only by such a small subset of the human population that I can’t fathom how AT&T and Samsung are putting so much marketing resources behind it.[2]" Today, instead of product design being used to solve the problems experienced by the user, it is used to create more SKUs and more sales. The smartphone you buy isn’t one that will solve your problems but the one that will hold you over till the "new" and the "next" that will be better. All of this demeans the role that product design can play in improving the experiences of consumers.

In 2007 Apple released the first iPhone, a beautifully simple large screen, black front, silver edge, and aluminum back. Every year since it has released a new version of the phone to long camped out lines of Apple fanatics and great success. The release of the iPhone played a large part in the mainstream acceptance of touchscreen technology, which had existed previously. It raised the bar for quality product design in the smartphone market and challenged the older manufacturers. In response, Samsung released its flagship line of galaxy phones in 2010. The Galaxy S i9000 came out in direct competition against the iPhone 4 in 2010. This would mark the beginning of the massively successful Galaxy S line, which would lead Samsung to sell twice as many handsets as Apple as of September of 2012[3], and a move in Samsung’s design to match that of Apple. By 2012 the iconic design of Apple’s iPhone 3G and 3Gs had existed for two years. Samsung’s Galaxy S i9000 was criticized for looking almost exactly like the iPhone 3G. It was a black rectangle with a large screen, rounded corners, and a silver band. It kept this design for the Vibrant t959, Mesmerize i500, and Galaxy S 4G t959v, releasing four phones that looked extremely similar to Apple’s design for the iPhone 3G. The issue though, is much larger than Samsung coping Apple’s design. Samsung, LG, HTC, Motorola, or any manufacturer who entered the high-end cell phone market from 2007 onward began designing black slabs. Apple’s design language ended up defining that of the whole market. Manufacturers felt that if they were going to compete for sales they needed a variation on a black slab with a large screen. Sales surpassed the encouragement of innovation and designer activity. This resulted in a horrible mimicry and monotony of similar looking devices with incremental differences. If one viewed the smartphone selection of an electronics store, they were faced with a sea of black slabs. Only those who bothered to keep up with tech-news were able to tell the difference, and even they struggled. This homogenization of design created boredom throughout the market.

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Nokia had always been known for its great, inventive designs but in recent years the company has been struggling to keep up in the smartphone market. The company faced dire straits as reviews for its phones repeatedly stated that they were great devices being held back by Symbian, its operating system. Symbian could not keep up with iOS, android, or windows phone and suffered in large part due to lack of app development. In 2011 Nokia made a deal with Microsoft to use Windows Phone as its primary operating system and closely collaborate with Microsoft. With this move the company became the flagship windows handset and set out to reinvent itself with the Lumia line of handsets. These devices stood out in the sea of smartphones because of its striking design. The cyan, magenta, and black uni-body polycarbonate design of the Lumia 900 were raved by many in the tech community, such as Joshua Topolsky of the Verge who said, "It’s beautiful. It may be the best looking phone on the market right now[4]". Suddenly in the storefront of AT&T locations a bright vibrant cyan radiated from the black mass. Product design had been properly applied to make a great looking and functioning phone that was original in its design. Its rounded sides fit comfortably in the hand. The screen curved into the polycarbonate body in a way that inspired touch. Unfortunately it did not perform as well as it needed to. Only months after its release in 2012 Microsoft changed its favor to long time manufacturer HTC to create its new flagship device. At the instruction of Microsoft HTC designed the Windows Phone 8X which not only acquired the commercial backing that Microsoft had promised Nokia but mimicked the Nokia bright polycarbonate design. At its release CNET correspondent stated, "I briefly thought I was in the wrong meeting. That’s because the HTC Windows Phone 8X could easily be a doppelganger for Nokia’s Lumia handsets… Honestly, if I squinted my eyes I could almost make out Nokia’s logo above the device’s 4.3-inch screen instead of HTC’s"[5]. What started off as new hope for original design from manufacturers turned into the next round of homogenization. Even Apple is releasing uncharacteristically colorful iPod touches this year. This system of mimicking impedes the power that product design has to innovate.

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Sadly the tides do not seem to be changing anytime soon, as the most powerful forces in the mobile communications market are not the manufacturers but the carriers. At the D3 All Things Digital Conference in 2005, Steve Jobs had this to say about dealing with cell phone manufacturers:

"The carriers now have gained the upper hand in terms of the power of the relationship with the handset manufacturers. And they’re starting to tell the handset manufacturers what to build. And if Nokia and Motorola don’t listen to them, well, Samsung and LG will. So the handset manufacturers are really getting these big thick books from the carriers, telling them "here’s what your phone’s gonna be.[6]"

Because the carriers control the consumers access to Internet and phone services as well as manufacturers access to consumers, they have final say in what does and does not reach the market. The only way $600 devices can reach consumers for $200 is because of carrier subsidies. The only way that device can have access to anything more than Wi-Fi is through­ the services that carriers offer. The success of the manufacturer hinges upon carrier support, which leads to manufacturers creating phones that the AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, and Sprint will want, not the consumers. As discussed by Nilay Patel of The Verge, the tragic 31-month failure of the Palm Pre shows just how much power carriers have. Palm was initially set to ship its Pre smartphone on Verizon until the carrier pulled out. Palm failed to compete on Sprint in direct competition to the iPhone. A year later Verizon ordered millions of the Pre Plus to then refuse the shipment and support Motorola’s Droid. Palm was left with millions of unsold devices that could only be use on Verizon and lost millions of dollars, leading to the sale of the company to HP[7]. The support of the carriers can make the difference between success, Motorola’s Droid line, and failure, the Palm Pre. Getting phones to carriers can take up to 15 months and cost millions of dollars. Vizio announced their entry into the cellphone market at CES 2011 and canceled its plans months after dealing with carriers. Vizio CTO Matt McRae stated "The cell phone market in the United States is not set up to encourage innovation… The inability to sell product directly to the consumer means that companies can’t experiment and iterate quickly"6. Those who want to create change face a massive force as the cell phone manufacturers are tied to the whims of the carriers.

In the design history of cell phones, the physical design served a purpose greater than providing a screen. Competition between manufacturers was to add or improve functionality. With the development of touch screens the body of the phone has become less and less important but product design can still play an important role if companies stop simply looking at what already exists and design for what can exist. Smartphones are the most personal devices that exist; either in constant contact or near proximity to their owners. There are few objects we own that provoke such a sense of ownership, design can reflect and cater to that individuality instead of each phone being so similar to the other. Innovation can manifest in more meaningful ways than shaving a few millimeters of a device that was already comfortable thin. Design needs to look toward significant change instead of sufficient mimicking.

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[1]Cha, Bonnie. CBS INteractive, "CNET." Last modified 2010. Accessed November 27, 2012.http://reviews.cnet.com/smartphones/htc-hd2-unlocked/4505-6452_7-33775409.html.

[2] Geller, Jonathan S. BGR Media, LLC, "BGR." Last modified 2012. Accessed November 25, 2012.http://bgr.com/2012/02/13/samsungs-galaxy-note-is-the-most-useless-phone-ive-seen/.

[3] Forbes.com LLC, "Forbes." Last modified 2012. Accessed October 22, 2012.http://www.forbes.com/sites/greatspeculations/2012/09/12/samsungs-galaxy-s-iii-success-ups-the-ante-for-apples-iphone-5/

[4] Topolsky, Joshua. Vox Media, "The Verge." Last modified 2012. Accessed October 24, 2012.http://www.theverge.com/2012/4/3/2921472/lumia-900-review.

[5] Bennett, Brian. CBS INteractive, "CNET." Last modified 2012. Accessed October 22, 2012.http://reviews.cnet.com/smartphones/htc-windows-phone-8x/4505-6452_7-35454632.html

[6] "Steve Jobs in 2005 at D3 (Enhanced Quality)," "YouTube video," 1:13:05, posted by "z400racer37," June 1, 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IzH54FpWAP0&list=UL.

[7] Patel, Nilay. Vox Media, "The Verge." Last modified 2012. Accessed November 30, 2012.http://www.theverge.com/2012/7/5/3138711/five-years-after-the-iphone-carriers-are-the-biggest-threat-to-innovation-editorial.