The iPhone killed mobile phone design…

I’ve been a mobile phone fan ever since I first laid eyes on one. Back in the mid-90’s they were all big, black character-less bricks that were designed purely to emulate the corded telephones you had in your house. They were a practical solution, they didn’t need to look good.

Things changed when Nokia entered the market. The Finish company immediately became successful with phones aimed at young people. You could remove covers and buy your own fascia to stamp your personal touch on to your phone. If you got bored with texting, you could spend hours trying to get maximum score on Snake. (Side note: I knew a guy who managed to fill the entire screen with the snake, he was a hero for that one day.) Design became as important as the usefulness of the handset, and from that point we saw countless variations in handset design.

The golden era, for me, was 2005-2006. There were so many great looking handsets, each offering a unique spin – some literally – on what a phone could look like and accomplish. There was a different reason for wanting, or buying most of them. Phones didn’t need to have a large capacitive touchscreen, and there were no third party apps to consider when designing display ratios and resolutions. Manufacturers could do whatever they wanted to.

This is just a snapshot of some of the phones you could go and purchase between 05-06. Nokia, as we were accustomed to, lead the charge on variations. The 3250 had a keypad that twisted 360 degrees with media controls on one side, and a regular keypad on the other. The N90 was a camcorder first, then a phone, and aimed to look like one. The RAZR V3i was the best looking phone on the mass market. Sadly, Motorola were stuck for ideas after that. The BlackBerry Pearl was a massive stride forwards for RIM, going after the consumer market, instead of heavy business users. The SE P990 was a touch screen device with removable keypad, running a version of Symbian. Samsung D600 (bottom right) was incredibly popular thanks to its predecessor, the D500.

There was so much going on. Some designs, like the Nokia “lipstick” phone were ridiculous, but that didn’t stop people buying it. There was a different phone for everyone. A year or so later, the iPhone came out. The front was dominated by a 3.5″ display, there were no buttons, mechanisms or anything else to detract from the beautiful display. It changed everything; in some ways for the worse.


Soon, companies were clamoring to get onboard the touchscreen bandwagon, even Nokia. Since large screened devices became popular, it’s been increasingly difficult for any company to stamp any identity on the market. When you look at a new phone, you know it’s going to be a rectangle with a large screen, the only differences are subtle: headset jack and buttons placements, size and shapes. Some have keyboards hidden underneath that slide out horizontally, few portrait. And then there’s RIM, who’s BlackBerry range has been virtually unchanged for 3 years. I hate to say it, but, the iPhone killed phone design.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my iPhone. I love that it’s practical, and I do believe its capabilities outweigh any need for unique design. That doesn’t mean that I don’t miss getting excited about new shapes, sizes, colors and mechanisms. All phones do virtually the same thing: calls, texts, email, camera, apps, messaging etc. Even back in 2005-06, phones had similar capabilities, but at least the design helped them become noticeable, memorable and stopped them from blending in to the background.

In today’s market, the touchscreen is king. We’re not getting away from that any time soon. Touch screens this great are what we dreamed of as gadget-crazed kids. And, on a positive note, it’s nice to see companies like Motorola and Nokia creating the Droid RAZR and Lumia series’ in an attempt to mix things up a little. But how many phones around now will be truly memorable for the way the looked and felt when you held them?

Ask me what an HTC Sensation looked like when I’m 50, and I most likely won’t be able to tell you. Ask me the same of the Motorola V3i, Nokia 8800, or Sony Ericsson w800 and I could tell you in great detail. Five years ago, we were at the summit of design ingenuity. We’re now a load of performance driven tech heads, who would rather see a phone get download speeds of 100Mbps, than see a company try to create something that looked different. I miss the old days, they were simpler and more beautiful.

What do you think? Would you prefer it if handsets all looked drastically different, or do you like the way the market looks now?

Images Via: GSM Arena

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  • Great post, and really enjoyed the photos!
    Missing is the fabulous Nokia 7210 – pint sized design at its best.
    Really good reading too. I figure design is not dead yet. The phone needed to mature a bit – design will be back in a big way

  • Hanna Alex

    hmmm great thanks for sharing these mobile specs