Why Apple’s No Longer Alone in Designing Beautiful Smartphones

Whether you prefer the iPhone, Android, Windows Phone or BlackBerry, it's hard to deny that Apple's phones are the best-looking of the bunch. But lately, other phone makers have been coming around.

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Doug Aamoth / TIME.com

Whether you prefer the iPhone, Android, Windows Phone or BlackBerry, it’s hard to deny that Apple‘s phones are the best-looking of the bunch.

For years, it seemed like other phone makers weren’t even trying to compete on design. While competitors kept up with the iPhone in thinness and lightness, they relied almost exclusively on plastic, making their phones feel creaky and cheap.

Lately, phone makers besides Apple have been coming around to the idea of premium designs. The HTC One is a gorgeous phone encased in a single slab of aluminum, and Nokia is reportedly working on an aluminum-clad Windows Phone. Although Samsung is using plastic for the Galaxy S 4, the company is rumored to be using metal for the next Galaxy Note. Aluminum isn’t the only material phone makers are turning to, either; Sony’s Xperia Z and Google’s Nexus 4 have glass panels on both the front and back of the phones — a nod, perhaps, to Apple’s iPhone 4 and 4S.

What took Apple’s rivals so long? I asked Ming-Chi Kuo, an analyst at KGI Securities with solid supply chain sources, to shed some light on the matter. He shared a couple theories for why phone makers are suddenly interested in aluminum, in particular:

  1. Aluminum is now cheaper and easier to implement thanks to Apple itself, and its extensive use of the material in products like the iPhone 5 and iPad. “Apple is the first one to boost the demand for metal casing in the consumer electronics market and it drives the related suppliers of aluminum casing (e.g. equipment providers, casing makers) to invest more on capacity and technology,” Kuo wrote in an e-mail.
  2. High-end phones are facing tougher competition from cheaper ones, and using aluminum is one way for smartphone makers to differentiate their more expensive products. That makes sense to me; the difference between a high-end phone and a cheaper product isn’t as significant as it used to be, leading to the perception that the latest and greatest smartphones are kind of boring. If you’re an Android user, a shiny aluminum design might be the one thing that convinces you to spend a little more.

I have another theory: in the United States, wireless carriers haven’t been futzing with phone makers’ designs like they used to. Whereas each carrier used to demand variants on phones like the Galaxy S, with their own designs, branding and features, carriers like AT&T and Verizon now seem more content to let phone makers come up with a single design, even if it’s not an exclusive. Apple led the way on that front, followed by Samsung, and now HTC is going the same route with the One. It’s easier to mass produce one design than a half-dozen variants, which could mean phone makers are having an easier time using high-end materials.

Plastic does have its defenders: Some users insist that it feels less fragile than glass or metal — but it also makes the phone feel more like a toy than a precision instrument. As Android and Windows Phone become more refined, I’m glad to see some phone makers using high-grade materials to match.

Not that it really matters, because you’ll probably put an ugly case on the thing anyway.

15 comments
daena.vassar
daena.vassar

But Apple is still alone in designing beautiful, effortless UIs.

tinnic
tinnic

I am still waiting for them to recreate the L'Amour collection for smartphones. Nokia made the mistake of trying to sell L'Amour on looks alone, while the underlying technology was not equal to the price at which they were being sold but if they play it right, i.e. make it technology equal to other phones in teh same price range, the looks would mean a lot of people would choose those over the competition. http://darlamack.blogs.com/darlamack/2005/10/nokias_new_lamo.html

Barbier_ism
Barbier_ism

It's an interesting time for such article, especially as Apple profits fell for the first time in a decade.

On of the main reasons is certainly the growing competitiveness: companies like HTC, Smasung, Google, Blackberry, Windows but also Mozilla and blackberry are gaining ground as their designs get better and have now nothing to envy to Apple. When the iPhone 4 was released there was no way to compete with it, now the lack of tangible innovation resulted in a market where other players are creating better products.. Here is a bit more of an analysis on competitors and the growing importance of digital ecosystems.

THE STATE OF "THE APPLE" https://medium.com/social-media-mobile-and-digital-innovations/272926a50ecb

mahadragon
mahadragon

@Barbier_ism You can only keep increasing profits year over year for so long. Just because profits weren't the same as this time last year doesn't mean anything. If any other company had the quarter Apple just did they would be doing cartwheels. Demand for Apple products is still very strong.

Barbier_ism
Barbier_ism

@mahadragon thank you for your comment. Yes you are right, they are still a very strong company and in comparison to most of the rest they had a stellar year.  The point is that they will not be able to stay ahead of the curve forever. I think it's quite positive that other companies are able to offer products of the same quality. There is a bit more offer and prices (hopefully) might decrease.

AlanRalph
AlanRalph

Maybe I'm just old-fashioned, but I bought my phone to use as a phone, not to put on a pedestal and admire. Yes, form is important, but so is function, both physical and software.

WantTheFun
WantTheFun

Have you seen the nexus one, nokia lumia, or htc one X? Lets not forget the original RAZR... Of these the RAZR had a metal body well before apple devices thought of it, and the nexus one had it too. There is nothing new here that Apple has come up with.  I think this infatuation is Apple marketing and it is working really well! 

The article (to me) comes off as though Apple is the only one that is leading the industry with design ideas. They do well, but the landscape is controlled by materials and technology as well. They were not the first with most design ideas and they will certainly not be the only ones with it. 

Besides, it might be a bit too biased to say that design is only complete with aluminum.That would be "walled/closed" creativity (imho).

mahadragon
mahadragon

@WantTheFun The Nexus One came with Froyo which was a laggy, primitive operating system (I know because I had one) and the design of the phone wasn't all that great either, even though it came with a metal body. The Razr wasn't a smartphone, it was a regular clamshell phone. Nokia's Lumia's all use the Windows operating system enough said. The HTC One X doesn't have that great a design.

You're just another Apple hater who doesn't want to give credit where credit is due. Apple was the first to have a great UI as well as a great quality hardware design. Nobody has put it all together in one package like Apple has. Yes, there have been phones in the past with a metal body but it takes more than just slapping a metal body on a phone to call it a great industrial design.

eagle11772
eagle11772

I'm sticking with my Samsung Intercept, because I'm paying a flat $25 a month for voice, and unlimited texts and web.  If I change phones, Virgin Mobile will  increase my rate.

roger
roger

I have seen many smartphones just as beautiful as Apple phones. But all of them look just like iPhones. I have seen some, such as HTC phones, that look different from Apple's phones but are very beautiful as well. The Samsung phones tend, to my eye, to copy Apple too much. I like the new look of HTC. It's clean, simple, serious and just lovely.

mikeprouty22
mikeprouty22 like.author.displayName 1 Like

If other companies (other than Apple) want to improve the way their devices look they should start bullying the carriers more. Android phones, Windows phones, etc. have the ugly carrier logo and name printed somewhere on the hardware of the device. That makes the device look cheap and ugly--they're stupid blemishes that shouldn't be there. 

It's time for a nation wide push from companies like Motorola, Samsung, Google, etc to bully the cell phone carriers. These companies should be telling the carriers what to do, NOT that other way around. The carriers for non-Apple devices have blemishes of carrier names all over the device, and other examples include when the phone starts up (carrier name shows up), on the back on the phone, or anywhere on the software when the user is using the device. Other problems with the carriers having control include blocking of apps [seriously?] Like Google Wallet and others. AT&T, Verizon, Spring, etc. don't OWN the device--they simply provide the means of communication for it. This is one reason I like Apple's iPhone--because Apple tells the carriers what to do in most instances and there aren't stupid looking AT&T logos all over my phone to take away the beauty of it. 

newmanjb
newmanjb

@mikeprouty22 It's not as bad as it used to be. The Samsung Galaxy S4, HTC One and Blackberry Z10 all have the carrier logos on the back. Not as good as no logo at all, but better than the Verizon Note II, which had the Verizon logo on the home button. Ugh. I think the carriers are realizing that the uglier their other phones look, the more people will gravitate toward the iPhone, and they'd rather avoid letting one phone maker have all the power in that relationship.

mahadragon
mahadragon

@newmanjb @mikeprouty22 The reason Apple has so much clout is because the iPhone is so popular. If nobody wanted the iPhone do you think the carriers would let Apple off the hook? If the other phone makers actually made a top notch device that everyone wanted that had a great industrial design along with great software (not a cheap plastic case) then they would have more say.

njayshree
njayshree

Design based competition will only make the world look beautiful. Encourage!

Jayshree

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