7 Oct 2014

Putting Form Ahead of Function

(Disclosure: I work for Google, but not for the Android team, or any hardware team, and in any case, these are my personal views.)

When I first read about the Nexus 5, I was excited. It seemed like a great phone, with a crisp (1080p), large screen, great software, and so on. But the first time I saw it in a shop, I hated it. It looked cheap and plasticky and just low-quality. It could be a phone I’d use, but not one I’d love.

Conversely, when I first saw the iPhone 5s in a shop, it looked beautiful. But, after I bought it, I dropped it multiple times in the first month itself. Thankfully it wasn’t damaged, and I rushed to buy a case before it broke. The smooth aluminium back looks beautiful, but for a very expensive product meant to be held in your hand day in and day out, it’s a bad design. The iPhone may be a great museum piece, but as a product to actually buy and use, who cares how good it looks if it’s going to slip and fall and be damaged?

The Nexus 5 turns out to be phone that’s actually better designed, despite initial impressions to the contrary. And when I read reviews holding up the iPhone’s design as amongst the best in the industry, I shake my head at the author missing the point.

You shouldn’t need a case for a phone. Buying one means, in fact, that the designers of the phone failed to do their job. Do you use a case for your laptop? Your car? Your TV remote? Why should you need one for your phone? The body of the phone itself should be soft and grippy enough that it doesn’t slip, and if it does, it should offer enough protection that nothing is damaged.

And manufacturers should put their money where their mouth is, and offer three years of warranty, which covers at least half a dozen accidental falls. Not as an add-on that extracts more money from you, but as a standard part of the package.

Another advantage of plastic is that it lets RF signal through, for cellular connections, unlike metals like aluminium, used on the iPhone. In the past few years, cellular connectivity has gotten bad in India, and calls often drop or are unclear. We need all the signal we can get. A phone that can’t make calls reliably is a joke. Put function before form. Use plastic, or other materials that don’t block RF signal, like metal does.

Finally, on the topic of putting function before form, phones should be thicker and have bigger batteries. Phones nowadays are downright anorexic. Add a few millimetres to the thickness and give them better battery life. A beautifully designed phone that’s out of battery is a paperweight. Worrying about charing my phone all the time adds a lot more hassle than a few millimetres would. In fact, I would like phones to have all-day battery life, no matter how heavily you use them, such as 16 hours of turn-by-turn navigation, or taking thousands of photos if you’re on vacation. The additional thickness will also give room for a better camera module.

So, phones should use plastic or some other material that doesn’t block RF signal, and doesn’t slip. And if it does, the body of the phone should protect all its components, including the screen. Design phones to not need a case. And make them last all day. Put function before form.

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