Phones are more beautiful than ever. Close your eyes and pick one: the sleek, rounded, comfortable iPhone 6; the stark, metallic Galaxy Note 4; the rugged, cohesive Xperia Z3; the curved, customizable Moto X. Walk into a carrier store or browse Amazon and you'll see nothing but remarkable feats of industrial design and engineering.
That moment, in the store, will be the last time your phone's design matters. Because you, like the overwhelming majority of smartphone buyers in 2014, are going to take your phone out of its box and put it directly into a case, where it will remain for the duration of your two-year contract.
It doesn't matter what your phone looks like. You'll never notice anyway.
If you buy a smartphone, there's an overwhelmingly large chance that you'll buy at least one case to go along with it. The NPD Group found in December of 2013 that 75 percent of smartphone owners use a case on the device — and seemed shocked to find that number wasn't higher. In the 12 months prior to the report, it found, phone case sales had grown 17 percent.
Almost everyone uses a case — and the numbers are growing
Apple, the bastion of good smartphone design, the company that has made beautiful smartphones longer than any other, is even more affected by this trend. 87 percent of iPhone users use cases, NPD found, and nearly half of those have used more than one case over the lifetime of their phone. After the launch of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, the thinnest and most carefully designed iPhones yet, accessory makers sold more cases than ever. Hell, even Apple wants you to hide its beautiful new designs behind a leather case.
Some case users do so to keep their phones safe. This impulse grows stronger as our phones get bigger, as the pane of glass ready to slide out of our hand and onto the floor gets harder and harder to hold. (I dropped my then-caseless iPhone 6 before I made it home from the store, and there's a ding that won't let me forget it.) It also grows stronger as our phones become more important to our lives; if my phone breaks I might lose my photos, my contacts, my notes, my high scores. My cellphone is now a precious object in every sense.
But cases have also appeared at fashion shows and in magazine spreads, designed by Marc Jacobs and Harris Tweed. In September, Vogue gave its recommendations of "the most luxe cases to buy now." We buy cases by Chanel and Louis Vuitton and Kate Spade, we bedazzle and be-tweed our simple metal rectangles. For many people, your phone isn't the fashion statement, the thing that says something about you as a person. That's what your case is for.
We lament the remarkable sameness of smartphones today, the fact that from across the room it's basically impossible to tell one big slab of black plastic from another. But maybe that's not a result of laziness on the part of manufacturers. Maybe it comes from an understanding that what consumers what is a blank canvas onto which to paint their personality. They may like one color now, but who's to say they'll still like it ten months into their two-year contract? What if it doesn't match my shoes?
Should you pick your case before you pick your phone?
You could almost argue that the way to shop for a phone is to pick the case you want and then find the phone that fits inside. Most smartphones work well anyway – you'd be hard-pressed to find one that doesn't do its job. Finding one that fits me, the way I see myself and want to be seen by others, is much harder.
Motorola was right to think that people want to customize their phones, but it missed the point: we don't want to customize our phones once, when we buy it. We want to customize them over and over again, redecorating our iPhones the way we change our socks. When the New York Times talked to a bunch of hip teenagers about their shopping habits, the conversation kept coming back to the iPhone 6. "When you take pictures, people see your case," 15-year-old Caitlin Haywood told the Times.
That's why Verizon's new Droid Turbo is so interesting. This is not a well-designed phone: it's not sleek, not subtle, not terribly comfortable. It has a big DROID logo on the back that inexplicably also includes the amount of internal storage you selected, because apparently that's information you need to be always able to see. But it's an otherwise extraordinary piece of technology, and the real truth seems to be that Droid Turbo's success or failure won't hinge on how it looks with a case off, but what it can do with the case on. And it might also come down to whether or not Verizon has the right cases to go along with it.
Building a great smartphone is still really hard. Software matters. Durability matters. Camera performance matters. Battery life matters. But in the world we live in, the way your phone looks doesn't matter. Let's stop pretending it does.