Anyone that knows me, knows that I have a little bit of a phone buying problem. Okay, maybe it’s more than a little bit. In the nearly 20 years of owning phones I have had over 100 phones. Having used so many devices, there are always a few that stick out in my memory. When I think of phones that I had an extreme attachment to there are a couple of models that always come to mind: the HTC One M8 and Apple iPhone 6 Plus. And when I think about what I loved about those phones is that they were industrial phones that were powerful in their time and featured designs that were minimal and functional. A quality that I feel is sometimes missed in today’s smartphone landscape.
These two phones had one thing in common in a sea of other differences: they both featured an all aluminum design around the sides and the back. To me, this is the most functional design choice for a smartphone that was ever devised. It is more durable than the plastic of the past and the glass of the present. It is also a happy medium of design aesthetic between plastic and glass. Metal is more visually appealing than plastic, but didn’t allow for all of the color tricks that we see on glass phones such as Samsung’s Aura Glow color on their Note 10 series. Yet despite these advantages, the all metal phone has largely disappeared from phone manufacturers’ portfolios.The reason for this has been shown to be a mix of limitations and forced advancement.
The Transition from Plastic to Metal to Glass
The evolution of smartphone design has always been something that is in hyper-drive especially at the top end. In the beginning all phones were made from plastic and generally featured removable back plates to be able to easily access the battery and SIM card slots. This was the prime example of design meeting functionality and purpose. Most of these designs did not feel exactly premium or luxurious, but rather focused on the usability aesthetic. And for most people that was great, as a focus on durability was the prime focus of these early smartphones.
As time went on, the evolution of plastic also changed on smartphones. The concept of the polycarbonate design became a very popular trend. This was seen on phones such as the HTC One X and Nokia Lumia 900 series of phones. This added more to the durability argument, with better heat conduction and better impact resistance. In fact, many smartphone enthusiasts miss this material in phones as it provided for an excellent look but also had great durability. The downside of this of course was that access to the internals was no longer possible.
In the evolution of the plastic phone to the modern day, an unforeseen circumstance has occurred. As companies have gone to glass in the flagship space, the plastics used on midrange and entry level phones have gone the way of mimicking the glass feel to make the device feel more luxurious. An example of this is the Samsung Galaxy A50 from last year that was treated to give a similar aesthetic in design to the higher end Galaxy S and Note series from Samsung. Instead of potentially bringing back the polycarbonate look, which would create a more appealing aesthetic in my opinion. This is the smoke and mirrors effect of smartphone design, where a lower priced phone has to look like a more expensive device to appeal to the budget buyer.
Once the polycarbonate phase had run its course, metal was the next material to be introduced. Metal offered a more luxurious in hand feel in addition to the tradition of durability that was established by early plastic and polycarbonate phones. The main issue with metal was that it required exposed antenna lines (think iPhone 6) since metal has some issues transmitting radio signals. The real appeal of metal from a design perspective, was the industrial elegance that exuded a sense of durability and usability. These phones felt like they could handle the rigors of everyday life and at the same time be able to exude a beauty aesthetic that was pleasing to the eye.
But in the neverending quest for the next great design, the market had to move forward. With the proliferation of wireless charging technology as an alternate way of powering up our devices, a move was going to be made as metal phones cannot support this feature, and that material was glass. The introduction of glass on the rear of phones has also introduced a design of gradient colors for differentiation purposes. We’ve seen this from most manufacturers and these colors seem to be the way that designs of phones are highlighted in the modern era. Glass has also lent itself to a whole other realm of design reasoning however. Due to the fragility and rigidity of glass, the avenue for more accessories to be sold has been incorporated in smartphone design.
Wireless Charging, Cases, and Scratches
I am one of those crazy people that uses a phone without a case. Quite often I am called insane by friends and family for not protecting my phone. My belief is that a lot of time goes into the design of the phone and like it or not, part of the buying decision is based on aesthetics. The design and visual appeal of a phone is very often an important factor in buying a phone. A lot of this design work and appeal is then negated when 90% of the population slaps a cheap plastic case on their phones. This modern evolution of smartphone design is in many ways tailored for the case buying public as a result.
Phones are expensive now, so wanting to protect the investment so to speak is a logical way of thinking. Coupled with the fact that surface scratches are very common with glass backs and the added need for cases on these phones makes more sense. On top of that, the market for wireless charging has been booming in the last few years. With more charging accessories than ever, and even wireless charging built into cars and furniture it is clear that glass backed phones are here to stay.
It would appear however, that under the pretense of a more elegant and beautiful design the phasing out of metal backed phones is centered around the building of accessory sales and ecosystem development. This development has been of the utmost importance to the major players in the smartphone space and has also allowed companies like Belkin, Mophie, and Otterbox to become household names. Selling a phone has become much more layered than merely buying hardware. Creating a lineup around wearables, accessories, and services all factor into the overall way that phones are marketed to us now and will continue to be marketed in the future. With this development, a metal phone never stood a chance.
Innovation for the Sake of Innovation
At a certain point, design advances have started to feel like change for changes sake. A creation of a need for a shift in general direction that is an all or nothing approach. Once the industry has deemed that a design is dated, it cannot be used and the show must go on. This appears to have happened to metal phones and intentional industrial design as a whole when it comes to smartphones. There was always something so tactile and usable about a phone like the HTC One M8, that was a kind of understated elegance that exuded power.
Now the phones have become fancier with their glass backs with all sorts of iridescent color finishes that are scratch and fingerprint magnets. In many ways these just do not feel as purposeful or refined. The real dilemma I find with this is that the polycarbonate and metal phone seem to have been lost in the shuffle during this race for new color invention. Every company seems focused on offering the most beautiful glass finish and treatment, only to have all of that work voided by a black Otterbox Commuter case.
It has reached a point in the smartphone life cycle where there has been so much work done to have the design speak for itself, but the speaking has turned into a yell, that the consumer has pressed the mute button to with a hard plastic shell. There is a certain uniformity in the current landscape, where there is a feeling that all devices look exactly the same. There has never been a better time for there to be more options in the way of materials. It really doesn’t need to stop with polycarbonate and metal, new materials like ceramic, kevlaar, etc. would lead to an aesthetic that would be more exciting.
The unfortunate reality though is that any movement forward in materials used in smartphones will have to adhere to the needs of wireless charging and other accessories that have become standard issue on smartphones. This severely limits the flexibility of design teams at all these companies. It can be argued that the proliferation of wireless charging and accessory sales effectively was a death sentence to a variety of materials to be used in newer smartphones.
The irony of this is that whenever you browse Reddit forums or comments sections on Android blogs, there will often be a comment saying how having an updated modern version of the HTC One M8, Nexus 6P, or even LG G2. There is a reason for this, these designs were classic and functional where the modern smartphone designs are more flashy and fragile. There is nothing wrong with eye candy, but the appeal rings hollow when the look is what every single device that is manufactured strives for. They say that all good things must come to an end. I will always view the era of all aluminum smartphones, the golden era of smartphone design. It is just an unfortunate consequence that it was derailed by the need to change and add features for the sake of adding features for accessory sales.