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Spillikins 170. What Happened to Mobile Phone Design?

Another V-Day I observe the Japanese syndrome I described in the Spillikins a year ago:

Long holidays for me are usually a chance to catch up with my work but this time I had just way too many semi-finished articles. I hope this will allow me to do some double time writing.

I will not be discussing Galaxy S3 today as I think plenty has been said already and my Russian first glance at it has caused quite a comment storm.

Judging by the public interest I think Galaxy S3 is going to be a real best-seller. I want to draw your attention to another interesting piece of news the Oracle vs. Google legal dispute that has already produced first results. I hope to discuss this subject in detail next week.

Once again, there is just not enough time to discuss everything I want but I hope to include some stories in the next issue. I want now to get down to the first subject I chose for today mobile phone design.


  1. Mobile Phone Design: Before and After 2007
  2. Retail Stores and Layout
  3. MixBag for Active People
  4. Nokia Asks Microsoft for Cash

Mobile Phone Design: Before and After 2007

Industrial design has been developing steadily for a long time now. The number of designers has always differed from area to. Some products received very little attention due to achieving some canonical design status pointless to tamper with. Some however have been pampered with all sorts of design embellishments. A friend of mine worked for BMW and she was responsible for the sound doors of the car make when closed. She then went to work for Nokia, not surprisingly, as design has always been a top priority for the Finnish manufacturer just like to all mobile phone manufacturers. Back in the day that is when manufacturers were crazy about high quality and appealing phone design and everything was taking into account: the looks, the sounds, the feel in hand, the user interface etc. Anyway, the trend changed took a dramatically different turn in 2007 and all phones suddenly started to look exactly the same. The image below created by an unknown author illustrates phone design before and after iPhone:

The picture above depicts the sharp change in the market trend and most modern touchscreen phones look so much the same that there are either no difference between them or they require pointing out to notice them. It reminds me of the find 10 differences game. Naturally, it is nor designers fault it is hard to come up with anything original when 95% of the surface is covered by screen.

It is amazing that Apple managed to avoid this design trap. Not without Jonathan Ive, of course, whom I find one of the best industrial designers on the planet. But even he could not have stopped iPhone from looking just like all the others if its design had not gotten modular when everyone can customize it the way he wishes. The modular design of iPhone deserves a bigger say in the next Spillikins. Right now I only want to note that all the accessories like skins and bumpers create the necessary diversity of the iPhone looks. And all iPhones do look different even though they are exactly the same. iPhone proves that looks matter but not necessarily the looks the manufacturer creates. Phone design can be customizable.

Manufacturers did the math and realized they just don't need that many designers who are now becoming extinct in the mobile phone industry. And touchscreens only one factor another one is that manufacturers are also cutting down on the number of phones they release. Fewer models require fewer designers. Mobile phone design is getting closer to a single standard design getting also boring on the way. There are fewer interesting looks everyday. And it is unlikely this situation is going to change.

However, the phone design in not only its exterior. It is also the UI and when it comes to the interface there are no two identical phones. Most people customize the interface of their phones changing animation effects, wallpapers etc. Just look at how different the UI of Apple iPhone and Samsung Galaxy look (by the way, thanks to every one who shared screenshots of their phones):

These images illustrate how phone design is moving from the chassis to the customizable UI. Manufacturers now invest a lot more money into what the user is going to see on the screen rather than into the phone exterior. HTC created the Sense overlay that serves as the company's unique design. Samsung has got its TouchWiz over the standard Android UI for the same purpose. There are also dozens of third party UIs and some of them are actually very high quality. Independent developers were very quick to see this new trend and now offer a selection of overlays.

These changes in the design are revolutionary as they are happening so fast since only 2007. iPhone has also brought the fashion for innumerable phone accessories. The most revolutionary bit is that you get a plethora of choices to change the design as you wish (wallpapers, animation, sounds, skins, films etc.). The user becomes the designer of his own phone. So there is no point getting sad about phones becoming all the same there is a whole new approach to design is coming bringing fascinating UIs and accessories.

Tell me how you customize your phone or why you don't. What catches your eye the most about other people's phones? Knock yourself out in the comment section!

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Retail Stores and Layout

For a month I have been going to a large number of retail stores looking at how they arrange phones on display. It is very interesting to observe which phones the store associates think deserve the most attention. Here I want to share some of my observations of hones layout in stores.

Open layout became popular in Russia a few years ago it allows the store customers to try out any phone they like. Back in the day when this sort of layout was yet rare stores that used it had a 30% growth in sales. Today they only get a 15% sales bonus as compared to more traditional layout stores.

The downside of the open layout is obvious it is very hard to sell the phones that had been on the open layout for a while. In just a month any phone becomes seriously worn out. The growth in sales is not enough to compensate for the display samples but it is usually the manufacturers who pay for display handsets. I believe that open layout is beneficial for all sides and nowhere but in Russia it so popular at the moment. However, open layout has its ups and downs too.

For example, the MediaMarkt store practices open layout but I have never seen a sales associate to wipe their phones so their phones on display look really shabby. I understand that it is really a downer to have to wipe every phone on display several times a day but that's what sales assistant do in Nokia and Samsung retail stores.

Another issue is the screen protectors. On the one hand, they really do help to preserve the looks of the phones on display but it totally kills the idea of the open layout that should allow the customer to freely test any phone.

Promo modes are a good idea but manufacturers should not forget to localize otherwise they become pointless. Another good idea for phone display is benchmarks. This is what the Beliy Veter retail chain practices. It is very informative and can function without open layout (the Beliy Veter stores don't have it).

Some manufacturers forget to think through how their phones are going to be connected to a power supply on display. Of course, with enough wits you can hook up any phone but I think it should be up to the manufacturers to come up with proper solutions of how their phones should be displayed and not make the sales associates in stores rack their brains.

I don't want to go into minute details of merchandise layout but I hope this little note on phones layout is going to help vendors and manufacturers make a bit of improvements.

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MixBag for Active People

I was always impressed by people who love what they do and bring their lifestyle choices to the employment environment. Sometimes they succeed, but there is some risk in their creativity, which deserves admiration. When Alexey Korovin from Kiev called me with the idea to review his MixBag I was indifferent, because it is difficult to surprise me in this department. There was no motivation to handle another generic bag for consumer electronics, but Alexey showed resilience. When I visited the website of the manufacturer everything changed.

I am very enthusiastic now and can even write a full review, although this description should suffice too.

The model in question is one of few transformer bags. Its unique point lies in containing two sections and it caters to people with active lifestyle travelling by bike, roller blades or motorbike. Each compartment has a multitude of convenient pockets. At the same time you cannot carry a DSLR there as it will prove too big for MixBag. It will perfectly suit an iPad or other small accessories, but the main attraction lies in the fact that you can carry it ten different ways. Any user may find the most appropriate one for herself, while Aleksey Korovin and his team are constantly working to improve their product. To cut a long story short judge for yourself http://mymixbag.com.

The bag costs 150 dollars, which is a lot, but it has no rivals. Feel free to prove me wrong. This bag is for those who could not find a suitable model among the rest of those available on the market. What is your impression? What are its advantages and disadvantages? After two weeks I can clearly say that MixBag is perfect for rollerblading, when you cannot leave a tablet or documents in your car. From my point of view it is convenient to carry the bag on the waist. It fits many objects traditionally left at home. Once again I have to mention that this model is not universal and everything depends on your lifestyle. Before buying you have to understand when you are going to use it. Finally watch the video where the creator of MixBag explains ways you can use it. We decided not to record our own video, because we had no chance to present the bag with better verve than its creator.

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Nokia Asks Microsoft for Cash

Nokia is again in the spotlight and I even don't know where to begin. Let's start with the old issue of shutting down Nokia branded stores, which are now operated by Samsung.

Russian Nokia branded retail abandoned

There is still a dozen of Nokia stores in Russia run together with other companies, but the flagship store in Moscow has been already closed down. A huge billboard near the building is empty as it has nothing to advertise. I am afraid all companies dealing with Nokia will be losing their money. The Nokia brand is almost dead and we are witnessing the funeral.

Another piece of news illustrates achievements of Nokia CEO. He not only turned Nokia into a loss-making enterprise bleeding one billion dollars a quarter, but sells assets to cover up record-breaking losses. Vertu is about to be sold as one of the last remaining valuable departments of the once dominant empire. There will be nothing left soon. Moreover, according to Reuters Stephen Elop may turn to Microsoft asking for help. At the moment Microsoft is already paying 1 billion dollars a year to support Nokia. Nevertheless, these funds do not solve the issues around the company.

Nokia shares are shedding their value all the time and the entire company costs now only 12 billion dollars, which is just a mockery over the former market leader. To put it into perspective compare it to the market capitalization of Rovio, which created Angry Birds and costs 9 billion dollars. Analysts believe that Nokia will not be sold. Any possible suitors were interested in patents and smartphones development only. Before buying the company you have to turn it bankrupt and buy it cheap. Against this background Nokia has no chance of survival.

The end will not be peaceful though. There is a rumor that Stepehen Elop and other top managers of Nokia will be sued for cheating investors. The lawsuit is already in court and you can read its full text here.

The company behind the group suit (anyone can join it if they owned Nokia shares in the appropriate period) is ROBBINS GELLER RUDMAN & DOWD LLP famous for suing big corporations when chances of winning are high. Its clients are not only individual investors, but pension and other funds, which lost money on shares depreciation. In the Nokia case they were heavily involved as they lost millions on shares sellouts, because their decisions were based on false promises of Nokia and its leaders. Stephen Elop and other managers of Nokia are accused of conscious lies.

Nokia faces problem after problem and cannot influence the situation. In the related press release there is no reference to the suitor or any legal document, but it contains the following: Nokia is reviewing the allegations contained in the complaint and believes that they are without merit. I would have been surprised if Nokia had acknowledged its guilt and paid billions in compensation. Let's see how the case will go, but I think Nokia will lose. The market players have the same feelings as the share prices continued their downward slide.

Last week Nokia also met investors and introduced the new Chairman of the Board. Risto Siilasmaa, founder of Data Fellows (F-Secure), supports the current management including Stephen Elop. The outgoing Chairman Jorma Ollila is a legend, who served as the President from 1992 to 2006 and Chairman from 1999 until now. Under his guidance the company became the leading mobile phones manufacturer and stayed at the top for 14 years. Now its leadership crown belongs to Samsung.

While talking to investors Ollila labelled the transition period difficult and shed some new Nokia plans, including tablets on Windows 8. Such initiatives were immediately criticized as the company lacks expertise in the area and does not know how to sell such products, which became clear when Nokia tried to market laptops and failed.

During the same meeting Stephen Elop said that Windows Phone handsets are not selling as well as expected and Skype app discourages carriers from distributing such products. Tomi Ahonen described in detail why this strategy is not a winning one.

Nokia and its head Stephen Elop have to deal with such commentaries, because they are often valued more than official soundbites from the corporate management, which is accused of lying. The only answer from the Nokia press department can be accessed ,here.

What else can I add? Nokia survived another week in hell with extreme difficulty. If there is no summer lull the Finnish manufacturer may not survive until Christmas. To make matters worse, Stephen Elop confirmed low Lumia sales everywhere beside Finland. Enough is enough. I am curious about the events, because the destruction of the market leader is unprecedented. Nokia destroyed itself from within.

Additional reading:

P.S. Have a nice week! I am off to a business trip around the US, so wait for new articles from across the ocean.

Do you want to talk about this? Please, go to our Forum and let your opinion be known to the author and everybody else.

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Related links

Spillikins 167: Gadgets vs. Gravity

Spillikins 168. Re: Stop Calling Me!

Spillikins 169. BADABOOM: The Future of Bada

Eldar Murtazin (eldar@mobile-review.com)
Translated by Maxim Antonenko (maxantonenko@ukr.net), Robert Mugattarov (mugattarov@gmail.com)

Published — 13 May 2012

Have something to add?! Write us... eldar@mobile-review.com



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