Smartphones and the Blight of the Boring Rectangle

After not being impressed by the direction Blackberry (formerly Research in Motion) has taken with its 10.3 update to its Blackberry 10 operating system, I decided that it was time to take a longer look at what else is out there. What I found was an incredible lack of diversity in hardware designs across all platforms, a trend that started somewhere around 2011.

I understand that rectangular screens make sense, but there have only been a couple phones on the market that were all screen, no bezel. Therefore, it stands to reason that companies can offer a variety of variations on the theme, as well as entirely unique form factors if they so choose. And back before 2011 or so, that’s exactly what many smart phone manufactures did.

Whether it was to deversify their product lines or to simply stand out from the crowd, many smartphone manufacturers have at one time released some undeniably beautiful or unique smartphone designs over the years. Let’s have a look at some of my favorites (courtesy of gsmarena.com),

Apart from the Motorola FlipOut, all of those devices are rectangular, yet all of them bring something unique to the table.

Blackberry Bold 9900

  • QWERTY keyboard with keys specially designed to be used with the soft, pad of the thumbs.
  • Metal and fiberglass chassis that was rock solid and delight to hold. I still keep one on my desk just as “flair to enjoy”!

Blackberry Perl 9100

  • Smartphone OS experience in the “candy bar” phone factor, size and all.
  • The two letter keyboard, when combined with the word prediction software, made for a productive device whose size could not be beat. The Perl was popular with teens and professionals alike, because of its comfortable, convenient size and its being a fully fledged smartphone.

HTC Hero

  • Clearly a rectangle, the Hero defies the form by creating a unique “chin” on its bottom.
  • One of the few non-Blackberry devices to offer a trackball, the Hero also came equipped with several useful buttons.

Motorola FlipOut

  • Decidedly unpopular, the FlipOut had the courage to go where no smartphone had gone before!
  • Not content to have just a QWERTY keyboard, it also had arrow keys.

Sony-Ericsson Xperia Neo

  • The Xperia Neo was ergonomically designed such that the “bulb” on the bottom rear stabilized the phone in one’s hand.
  • From the curves, accents, and physical buttons of this device came a rectangle that was anything but boring!

If I could build my “dream smartphone”, it would be in a Sony-Ericsson Xperia Neo chassis. It’s a thing of beauty that feels great in the hand and isn’t too small or too enormous for everyday use. And, I just don’t understand why everyone other than Blackberry these days isn’t willing to make more than “boring rectangles” (or “boring rectangles with rounded corners”).

Let’s take a moment to consider Apple and its iPhone. The iPhone is the only smartphone that Apple makes. Unlike other manufactures, Apple doesn’t even try to have a diversified smartphone product line, so one can’t really fault them for their lack of diversity. Every year Apple releases a new iPhone and it stands to reason that being an iPhone it should be similar to previous iPhones. Right? Makes sense.

Blackberry on the other hand has always filled its product line with a variety of different devices and despite their serious drop in revenue over the last few years, they continue to do so. The current line up of devices for Blackberry are the Classic, Leap, and Passport. Still available on the market are the Q5, Q10, Z10, Z30, and the super expensive Porche Design “mods”. To be released later in 2015 is the yet-to-be-named vertical slider. All this diversity from a company that many people mistakenly think is dead. Let’s have a look at these products (from newest to oldest),

That’s a heck of a lot variety on the rectangular theme, eh? Now compare that to the devices Samsung, HTC, Sony, and LG have made over the last 3 years – they’re ALL “boring rectangles”, with the rare exception for “ruggidized” devices. Many manufactures used to make more interesting devices and even Samsung’s rectangles used to at least be more unique looking, but that’s just not the case any more.

Why?

Why are almost all smartphone manufactures only making these thin “slab” rectangles these days? Is it that consumers only want these “boring rectangles” or is that manufactures are playing it safe, because what works for the iPhone should work for them too?

Look in any mall parking lot in Canada and you will find an amazing variety of vehicles. All shapes, sizes, colours, manufacturers… You would be hard pressed to find three vehicles side by side that look the same. And why is that the case? It’s simple.

Generally speaking, all vehicles get a person where they’re going in the same way, so when given a plethora of options, people will choose the car they like the best. And wadda-ya-know, different people like different things! 🙂

Hopping back to the blight of the boring rectangle, it would seem that in 2015 consumers have been boxed into a corner when it comes to the choices they have available to them. They can either buy a Blackberry Passport/Classic or they can buy a boring rectangle. If they don’t want the Blackberry, and many do not for various valid reasons (such as a preference for using iOS, Android, or Windows Phone software), then they have their choice of rectangle, rectangle, or… yet another boring rectangle!

No wonder all we tend to see in people’s hands these days are slab phones with rectangular chassis – that’s all there is to buy.


I suppose the arguement could be made that “the boring rectangle” is simply the ultimate refinement of the smartphone concept and thus manufactures can not improve upon an already perfect concept. However, in my personal experience I have found that the thin, wide, and tall “boring rectangle” devices, such as my Blackberry Z10, are less than physically perfect.

When my wife upgraded from her Blackberry Bold 9900 to an HTC One Mini, I decided to take the plunge and get all touch “boring rectangle” as well. I originally went with the HTC One, but traded it for a Blackberry Z10 which was bit smaller. In the nine months I used the Z10, I managed to fumble and drop it many more times than I had with any other smartphone I have used. The Z10’s combination of width, hieight, and completely flat back made it an object that simply did not fit comfortably into my small hands. Compared to the Motorola KRZR flip phone, which I never dropped when I used it for several months, the Z10 was a weird, bulky nightmare device that almost seemed as though it wanted to flee from my hands. And it’s not alone: Most smartphones chassis these days are built like the Z10’s.

I was overjoyed when I replaced my Blackberry Z10 with the physically smaller, physical keyboard rocking Blackberry Q10.

Another point of discomfort I noticed with “boring rectangles” and modern smartphones in general is that they’re bloody enormous! I get that people want to use their smartphone for more than just checking their email and making calls, but when screens are 4+” and chassis are bulging out around them, something has to give. In my experience, this enormity lead to a cold war between my testicles and my Z10, where each jockeyed for position in my pants. All day it was an obnoxious misery of constant adjustments and wasteful attention, just to maintain some semblance of comfort. I never had that problem with my Blackberry Bold 9900 or Curve 8520, they just sat there in my pocket, minding their own business. Ugg… when a tall smartphone turns sideways in a front pocket while you’re running…

I don’t carry a purse. I don’t want to wear a holster for my phone. I just want to put the damned thing in my pocket and forget it’s there until I want to use it! What’s so wrong with that?

Alas, these are the major failings of the modern smartphone chassis, yet none of the manufactures seem to care about it anymore. It makes me particularly sad that Sony has moved to the the flat back design, because they really had something special in the ergonomics of the Xperia Neo. The thickness of a smartphone plays more of a roll in its ability to be handled firmly than the width, and the width plays more of a role than the length. A quick look at the history of the human hand is all that’s required to understand why that’s true.

The human hand, much like the hands of the other primates, has evolved to excel at holding onto branches. All of our most functional hand tools are essentially variations on the theme of branches. From hammers to wrenches, bows to swords, we are meant to hold rounded sticks!

Rounding the back of a smartphone instantly makes it easier for a person to handle. Further contouring the edges and front only makes the device that much natural to handle. However, this knowledge appears to be have been lost by smartphone manufactures over the last few years. As a result, the market is full of “boring rectangles” that are awkward to handle. Rounding the corners, a little or a lot, does not make a smartphone easier to handle, though rounded corners sure feel a lot less painful when they are jabbing you in the balls…

Nothing is perfect and everyone is different.

These are two wonderful truths that fill our world with diversity and joy. When it comes to the smartphone industry, I would like to see more than just Blackberry trying to maintain some semblance of choice for people, because one size and one shape does not fit all.

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