All smartphones look the same today for 2 key reasons


Narrator: All of these phones were released in 2018. They were made by 14 different companies. Why do they all look the same? The modern smartphone can be described in three ways, a large screen, a notch, and no headphone jack. It’s no surprise that smartphones didn’t always look like this. But, how did we end up with this glass slab design? In 1994, IBM released what is considered to be the first smartphone. The Simon Personal Communicator had a monochrome LCD and stylus. It included some smart capabilities, like sending emails and faxes. Compared to other phones at the time, the Simon put more focus on the screen. The body of the phone was just a shell. This balance might remind you of another popular smartphone.

In 2007, the release of the iPhone started a design trend that has lasted more than a decade. Instead of having a full keyboard or complicated design, the iPhone stripped away most of the hardware, and instead focused on the touchscreen. Buttons can be limiting. They’re defined when a phone is created and can’t be changed, but software and apps can be changed, and updated with new features. Over time, hardware gimmicks and accessories didn’t catch on. But, thousands of new apps are released every single day. Apps can change and evolve, and they have become the reason we use our phones. A few years after the iPhone, companies like Samsung and Motorola followed Apple’s lead, and created phones with big screens and buttons on the sides and bottom. As technology has improved, phones have gotten thinner, larger screens, and more powerful processors. Phones continue to have fewer buttons, but the design remains very similar to the original iPhone. So, what’s so special about this glass rectangle?

Neil Mansfield: I think all smartphones look the same, because of two key reasons. One of them is the humans that are using them, are pretty much all the same. So, therefore, there’s not a lot of variation that a manufacturer can do from the human perspective.

Narrator: Neil Mansfield is a professor at Nottingham Trent University. He pointed out that what people want more than anything is a phone that they can comfortably hold and easily put in their pocket.

Neil Mansfield: The other aspect of it is being driven by the technology that’s available. If you can only make batteries of a certain form factor, that’s gonna drive how big the phone can be and the shape of the phone. If you can only make a screen of a certain form factor, it’s exactly the same. And that’s why we see phones that are flat, why we see phones follow that rectangular shape.

Narrator: New phones are released every year, but manufacturers are limited by the currently available technology. Take the notch, for example. It looks odd, and can be kind of distracting, but it houses useful features like front-facing cameras, sensors, and speakers. Several companies have tried to use hardware tricks to get rid of the notch, but until technology advances, we’re stuck with it on mainstream phones. Besides technological challenges, trends play a big role in phone design. Looking at the history of smartphones, it’s clear that Apple has been the trendsetter. Apple isn’t always first, but when they add or take away features, other manufacturers tend to follow. Samsung, for example, began pushing their screen to the edge before Apple, and so far, they have even avoided including a notch on their phones. But, competitors haven’t followed Samsung’s design, they have picked Apple’s. But, there actually are some benefits to phones looking similar. It’s easier for consumers to switch from one phone to another when the learning curve isn’t as steep. But, the trouble with these similar designs is a serious lack of innovation. Critics have called out Android manufacturers for missing an opportunity to avoid the notch and adopt a new design, separate from Apple’s. If companies aren’t willing to innovate, new phone models will always seem the same, giving consumers less reason to upgrade. In a time when over a dozen flagship phones are released each year, it can be really hard for an average user to differentiate between two phones. How do you know if the latest LG phone is better than the latest Google phone, if they both look the same? But, maybe this is it? Have we reached the peak of our smartphone design? Judging by the exponential speed of technological improvements, probably not. Future advancements in technology could dramatically change the way our phones look.

Neil Mansfield: As we get new materials or batteries, as we get new technology rolling out for displays, that’s gonna allow the phone designers and the manufacturers to be more creative in what they do.

Narrator: But, for now, companies are trying to evolve as much as they can inside the box they are given.

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