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Don’t fear the thickness

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Smartphones need to get over their size insecurities

Meaningful innovation is the tech industry’s favorite aspiration. Technology shouldn’t be built for its own sake, every company tells us, and must have a purpose that directly addresses the needs of its users. This ambition of purposive design has often been trampled over, however, in the blind pursuit of thinness. As with the megapixel wars of yesteryear, the race to have the thinnest phone has become an exercise in spec sheet obsession. Let’s shave a few millimeters here and cut a couple of corners there and we too can live in the sub-7mm club.

I think it’s time we let go of this chronic size insecurity. It’s okay to be thick. The best-loved designs over the history of smartphones have rarely been the thinnest. Whether it’s the Motorola Droid (13.7mm), the Palm Pre (16.9mm), the BlackBerry Bold (10.5mm), the original iPhone (11.6mm), or the Nokia N9 (12.1mm), the classics of the past decade seem decidedly chubby when judged by modern standards. But who’s setting these standards and why?

Don’t get me wrong, I know thinner is generally better. Flat LCD screens have revolutionized the concept of the TV from a massive tube to a thing you can hang on your wall. The latest ThinkPads and iMacs are exponentially more portable and desirable than their original models and we’re all benefitting from that. But the threshold of "thin enough" for phones was passed long ago. The girth difference between the pillowy N9 and its 8.7mm-thick design descendant, the Lumia 730, is not a meaningful one. Both phones are a pleasure to hold.

This would all be quite innocuous if thinness was just an extra layer of custard smothered atop your technology cake, but it all too often comes at a price. Small batteries and compromised cameras are the first victims of the desire for a thinner phone. Or, if the camera doesn’t stink, it’s because it actually protrudes out from the phone’s body, as you’ll find in Samsung’s 6.7mm Galaxy Alpha and Apple’s new iPhones, both hovering at just around 7mm. I’ll let you in on a carefully guarded secret: there’s no real difference between 7mm and 10mm, let alone between 6.7mm and 6.9mm. If only Samsung and Apple could have let their belts out a little, we could now be looking at devices with more cohesive, bulge-free designs and potentially more generous batteries to boot. And let’s face it, an iPhone 6 Plus that was a little thicker on aluminum might not have had to deal with the present controversy about how bendy it is.

It’s been two years since Nokia’s chief industrial designer told me that "thinness isn’t everything." It’s also been a few months since LG’s lead designer told me that the G3 is thicker than it absolutely needed to be in order to achieve a better fit in the hand. Phone designers get it. I just wonder if phone marketers understand this as well: the slickest looking device may get you more sales today, but the one that feels best will be the foundation of your customer loyalty for the future.

Specs matter — and thinness is a great measuring stick for the continuing miniaturization of technology — but they matter in stages. Phone thinness hasn’t been an important factor since the Motorola Razr put everyone’s devices on a diet. There’s a reasonable range of expectations that’s now established, and while you can’t stray too far outside it, the route to being meaningfully innovative really doesn’t require you to be at the cutting edge, either. Everyone should move forward the way Motorola did with the Razr Maxx, which wasn’t shy about bulking up to maximize its battery life. Sometimes, good things come in thick packages.