The iPhone 5 and the Unfortunate, Non-Existent Battle of Design

The consumer electronics battle that never was. Or maybe it will be someday, but we just don’t know when yet. I certainly hope that one day, some company will put equal parts hardware design, quality materials, software integration, and polish together in a single product, and really challenge Apple on its home court of design. The kind of holistic design sensibility that brings all of these elements together into a device that exudes quality when you both hold it and use it. Maybe someday. Can you tell this frustrates me more than just a little bit?

Ok, before throwing the book at everybody else, let’s back up for second and take a look at Apple’s latest creation. The iPhone 5 suffered from more leaks than probably any other device in Apple’s history. Sure, the iPhone 4 fell into the media’s hands not long before its launch, but we’ve never seen so much information over so long a period leading up to an iOS product reveal. Unfortunately, anyone who was paying attention knew everything that Tim Cook and company would lay out on stage, which really put a damper on the excitement leading up to the announcement.

Because of all the leaks, we had endless analysis from tech journalists and podcasters on every fine detail of the coming iPhone 5. The lack of a single, standout feature, and the inevitable fatigue of all this rehashing led to a growing tide of apathy and, in some cases, criticism of Apple’s new design from the tech press. However, something interesting happened after the main event. During the press’ hands-on time, quotes from multiple sources, many of whom sounded pretty jaded in their opinions about the iPhone 5 leading up to Apple’s announcement, started to leak out via Twitter and various liveblogs and articles. Some of them expressed surprise at the difference between what you see in pictures and mockups, and what you actually feel in the hand. Others were much more demonstrative, exclaiming how thin, light, and attractive the new aluminum and glass design is. Still others compared the iPhone 5’s polished corners and overall feel to fine jewelery. Here are a few comments from prominent reviews, for your reading pleasure:

The Verge- “The iPhone 5 is unquestionably the best iPhone ever made, and for the mass market, it’s the best smartphone, period. Between the new design, blazing fast LTE, and excellent battery life, there’s little to not like here. It’s a competent, confident, slick package, certainly made better by most (but not all) of the updates and changes in iOS 6. Despite the Maps issues and some questions about whether Passbook will be a viable product, there’s no doubt that Apple has crafted a beast of a phone — a fine machine that is a worthy new entry in the most innovative line of products the company has ever made.”

TechCrunch- “I really do believe this is the best iPhone upgrade that Apple has done yet (besting the iPhone-to-iPhone 3G jump and the iPhone 3GS-to-iPhone 4 jump). As such, it’s the best version of the iPhone yet. By far.”

USA Today- “People have always had lofty expectations for the iPhone 5, especially as the competition stiffens. In delivering a fast, attractive, LTE-capable and larger-screen handset, Apple has met those expectations with a gem.”

Pocket Lint- “It’s the same iPhone, but it’s completely different. That’s the main takeaway point for the iPhone 5′s design. It’s something you can’t really appreciate until you get up close and personal with the new phone, but when you do, wow, you’ll really notice that difference.”

Engadget- “Still, the iPhone 5 absolutely shines. Pick your benchmark and you’ll find Apple’s thin new weapon sitting at or near the top. Will it convince you to give up your Android or Windows Phone ways and join the iOS side? Maybe, maybe not. Will it wow you? Hold it in your hand — you might be surprised. For the iOS faithful this is a no-brainer upgrade. This is without a doubt the best iPhone yet. This is a hallmark of design. This is the one you’ve been waiting for.”

So Apple did what they always seem to be able to do. They went from old, busted, boring, and behind the curve to the new hotness in the space of a few minutes. And how did they do it? Design. All the specs and internals that were discussed on-stage were fine. Not spectacular or gamechanging, but an acceptable next step. It was the seamless marriage of these iterative features to the materials and the feel of the final result that tangibly changed people’s perceptions. And not just any people- a room full of jaded industry insiders who have been there and done that many times over. This sort of thing seems par for the course for Apple at times, but in light of the detailed and drawn-out leaks, I think this particular script flip is even more impressive.

I guess it isn’t a big story. It’s just Apple being Apple. But how about the rest of the smartphone field? What are they doing in response to Apple’s continuous pursuit of quality design in all of their products? Unfortunately, Apple is still basically playing on its own field here, as the competition either can’t get it quite right, or flat out just doesn’t care. Let’s take a quick look at what some of the usual subjects are up to.

 

The Ones Who Actually Care

1. Nokia

There is really only one company in the mobile game that cares as much as Apple about materials and design, and that is Nokia. Starting with the Lumia 900, they definitely threw down the gauntlet and showed the smartphone world that they are still a force to be reckoned with. To be honest, the Lumias are the best looking phones that I have ever seen, any iPhone included. They exude both style and quality, and they are totally unique. In a marketplace full of me too, Nokia’s current design language stands out in stark contrast. If smartphones were about style alone, Nokia would be looking at Apple in the rear view right now.

However, style and materials alone cannot make up for an OS that is still playing catch up, and an ecosystem that isn’t competitive yet. I tried Windows Phone briefly last year, and even after the Mango update, it just wasn’t quite there. As good as the Lumia 900 looked, the software was just too much of a letdown to be of real interest. Then, Microsoft dropped the big bomb, and let us know that no legacy phones, including the flagship 900, would be getting an upgrade to Windows Phone 8. Ouch. Talk about a sales killer.

Unfortunately, the fail wasn’t finished yet. Not even close. First, Nokia staged an event before Apple’s last week to show off the new Lumia 920, but gave almost no real information. No price, launch date, or specifics on US partners. Add to this the fact that Microsoft hasn’t yet taken the full wraps off of Windows Phone 8, so no one has been able to see this new flagship phone is action. Then, as if things weren’t bad enough, Nokia got caught red handed by The Verge in some lies and deceptive marketing regarding their new PureView camera’s image stabilization tech. This actually would have been acceptable advertising if Nokia had disclosed it, but trying to pass off professional camera images as having come from a smartphone, and then lying about it when you get caught, is way out of bounds.

I would love to think that Windows Phone 8 will be amazing, and become a viable 3rd mobile OS, that the new Lumia 920 will overcome Microsoft’s shortcomings and Nokia’s own mistakes, and that it will be the big boost that the platform needs. That’s a LOT of ifs, though. I don’t think we can declare the Lumia 920 dead on arrival, but it is very doubtful that it is ready to truly go toe-to-toe with the iPhone 5.

 

2. HTC

I probably wouldn’t have put HTC in this category in the past, but they really upped their game with the release of the One X and S models earlier this year. Not only did they come up with attractive designs, but they also combined that with higher quality materials and craftsmanship than what is typically seen in Android devices.

The thin, meta body of the One S, is especially nice in the hand. They even pulled back their Sense UI, which had become drastically overblown, in response to customer requests. HTC also made an effort with the One Series to create an identifiable brand that would be strong enough that carriers would accept it, use it, and most of all, promote it. Unfortunately, early software issues, and lack of carrier push took a bite out of sales. Of course, there was another small matter of an import ban here in the US, which didn’t exactly help matters, either.

These issues certainly didn’t do HTC any favors, but they pale in comparison to a much more important problem. Mindshare, or lack thereof. Samsung released the Galaxy S III a couple of months after the One, and that seemed to suck the life right out of it, despite the fact that many critics saw them as fairly equivalent high-end Android devices. Unfortunately, I fear that the failure of the One series and HTC’s current shaky financial situation may spell the end for any kind of design focus in the high-end Android market. Why bother spending the time and effort if it isn’t going to make a difference in sales?

 

The “Meh” Group

1. Sony

Originally, I was just going to have two groups of companies, but thinking of Sony made me consider adding another. In fact, I created this group for them because I do see a glimmer of interest in design from them. For example, the Sony Xperia P has some very attractive looking features. It has a good looking screen, and best of all, a sharp looking aluminum body. Sony has even managed to bring some elements of personalization and color into their newer devices, ala Nokia.

However, Sony is still that company that everyone is waiting to put it all together. They have the chops and the resources, yet it just doesn’t ever seem to all line up for them. Just take the Xperia Play, and its almost non-existant Playstation integration as an example of Sony coming up with great ideas, but just not fully executing. Then the Xperia P, which I just bragged on, shipped with Gingerbread WELL after ICS was available from all the other major Android vendors. Even Sony’s just announced Xperia models, the T, V, and J, just don’t quite match up with the One X and Galaxy S III, and don’t seem to have clear identities of their own.

Hopefully, the fact that the mobile phones are now completely under the control of Sony, along with the new “One Sony” initiative that is supposed to bring all aspects of the company together, will put them on par with Samsung at the top of the Android heap. For now, though, Sony is just interested in quality design and integration. They just can’t seem to pull it off. However, if they can bring it all together someday, watch out.

2. Motorola

I went back and forth over whether Moto should go here, or in the group below. Considering that they have been pushing the limits of thin smartphones with LTE and great battery life with their re-branded RAZR smartphone line, they get a pass. Also, whatever you think of Motorola’s design language, it has always been unique, and distinct from the iPhone and others since the OG Droid, so some credit is due there, as well.

However, this look is also the downfall of Motorola’s design philosophy. Or lack thereof. Moto has been dancing to carrier’s tunes, mostly Verizon’s, since the Droid become a hit. Now they can’t seem to break free of it. That, or they don’t have the clout to stand up assert themselves the way that a Samsung or and Apple can, and end up just doing whatever they are told. You would think that this would change now, since they are owned by Google, but thing don’t seem all that different, as of yet. Whatever the cause is, Motorola’s designs have been solid, but uninspiring for a while now, and leave a lot of room for improvement on a lot of fronts.

 

The “We Really Couldn’t Care Less” Group

1. Samsung

Winner, winner chicken dinner. For all of Samsung’s vast resources and manufacturing capacity, they have chosen the cheap and easy route when it comes to their hardware. They are the ying to Nokia’s yang. It’s all about the software, with as little effort put into the hardware as possible.

What’s frustrating is that, it’s not like Samsung can’t make a really cool looking device made from high-quality materials. Just go back and check out the Wave from 2010.

It had an aluminum unibody, was one of the first smartphones to include a Super AMOLED display, and had a very unique design. Who knew Samsung was capable of such a thing? Why they chose to anchor such a potentially cool device with their ill-fated proprietary Bada OS, while they were pumping out the original Galaxy as their original Android flagship, with its incredibly cheap and creaky plastic shell, I’ll never understand.

I guess I do have to give Sammy some credit. Even though the Galaxy S III is still just super lightweight plastic, it is definitely a LOT better than the original Galaxy. It feels more solid in the hand, and is definitely much higher quality. Also, Samsung has definitely come up with a distinct look with its third gen product. People can argue whether its a great design or not, but it is at least a unique design language now, and is readily identifiable. This seems to be a continuing direction for Samsung, considering that the coming Note 2 has been redesigned to look more like the S III than the original Note.

I realize that I’m giving Samsung a hard time here, but when you consider that they have become THE high-end Android brand, they currently make the top performing ARM chipset for Android, they control pretty much their own entire supply chain, the fact that they have poured a lot of time and effort into their Touchwiz skin, and that they have produced high-quality products before, they are certainly capable of much better than they are currently delivering.

I’ve seen, heard, and read where a lot of Android fanboys get their feathers ruffled when the subject of design is raised. “It’s all about software and features,” or “Design is for iSheep,” or just a plain old, “Nobody cares.” However, design DOES matter to a lot of customers, and a company that delivers the good everywhere else can and should do better. This matter is just made worse by the fact that Samsung is now spending a lot of time blowing its own horn talking about its “nature inspired” design philosophy, and how their devices are “Built for Humans.”. How about this, Samsung. If you want to tout the look and feel of your smartphone in glowing terms, make one that truly rises to the rhetoric.

2. LG

Is LG even worth talking about? Bad software and skins, sub-standard hardware and software integration, and little to no direction. Then there’s the fact that they are pretty much just ripping off Samsung at every turn. If you need confirmation on this point, just look at the new Verizon Intuition next to a Galaxy Note or Note 2. If LG is going to flat-out copy, and then sell at the same price, couldn’t they at least make descent copies? They have been nothing but a disappointment, and I wouldn’t be shocked if they end up looking at Huawei and ZTE from behind in the very near future.

 

So this is just a brief overview of how the primary competition stacks up to Apple when it comes to the smartphone meeting the hand. How does it feel? How well was it made? What are the materials like? How well does it all tie together with the software? These are the boxes that Apple is checking off every time out, and the iPhone 5 is no exception. I’ve spent a lot of time playing with mine since I got it earlier this weekend, and it pulls off some rare feats. It is thinner and lighter, despite the fact that it’s larger (a least in length), and it also feels incredibly solid in the hand, while also being strikingly lightweight.

I’ve at least held and in some cases, actually used several of the phones listed above, and I can safely say that none of them is the iPhone 5’s equal on these terms. Some get the hardware right (Nokia and HTC), while others nail the software (Samsung), but no one seems to be able to get both right at the same time. I just hope that this will eventually change, and that some company will step up and make an effort to truly challenge Apple by making a device that looks and feels as good in the hand as it does to use. Until that day, if you appreciate quality materials and design in your hardware, and seamless integration in your software, look no further than Apple’s iPhone 5.

 

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