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A smart form for the smartphone?

by Leanna Appleby , 20.01.2014

The “smartphone” is a term we are all very familiar with; first coined in 1997 by Ericsson, the smartphone has seeped its way through our society and is now firmly grounded into our lives. In its early stages the device came in a variety of shapes including flip screens with an aerial, flip screens without an aerial, flip keyboards, static keyboards, no keyboards, wide screens and small screens. However, as the smartphone timeline has progressed it seems that all smartphones are merging into the same slim-line rectangular shape.

So what does this mean for the smartphone of the future? Is this the end of the line or will smartphones take a dramatic turn and diversify in form again?

Today’s smartphones generally possess a 4 to 5 inch touchscreen display; weighing in at approximately 110g-140g. Most smartphone models are available in a variety of colours and the wide range of protective cases add to the customised look, with some offering the chance to purchase the addition of a physical keyboard. However, the rectangular shape is a common form amongst all smartphones, with the only variation being round or straight edge.

For the most of 2013 smartphone manufacturers have been focusing more on the functionality and features of their smartphones rather than their form. Over the course of the year, there have been numerous updates, improvements and additions to the latest smartphones on the market as brands continue to compete for the position of market leader. This has included the introduction of fingerprint sensors, faster processors, better RAM, improved screen resolution, including retina display and possibilities for a 4K UHD (ultimate high definition) screen, software enabling you to shoot pictures in RAW format, record breaking megapixel cameras and higher touchscreen sensitivity.

However, during the latter part of 2013 there have been some rumblings in the smartphone market that change is afoot with brands looking at ways to redesign the current standard smartphone shape. Some examples include Samsung’s latest release, the Galaxy Round, which has been dubbed the world’s first curved display smartphone. LG has also recently announced its curved G Flex smartphone, a smartphone which not only has a curved display, but can flex as well.

But could smartphone design take a more radical turn? The recent modular smartphone concept “Phonebloks” desiged by Dave Hakkens has created some waves in the smartphone market. Dave’s concept suggests that smartphones could be made out of “blocks” as opposed to one infused device. If a part of the smartphone should break, it can be easily replaced with a new “block”. The “blocks” in the smartphone also enable the user to customise their phone or upgrade it should they wish to. For example, if they wanted a higher megapixel camera, bigger screen or more memory they could easily do this by purchasing a new “block” to support their requirements.

It is not surprising that the future form of smartphones has been a hot topic in 2013; there have been some interesting predictions for the future. These include projector phones (a phone that projects the display screen onto another surface which you can control through the projection), two-sided touchscreen phones (a phone which enables you to control your phone through the front and back), transparent phones (a touchscreen phone made out of glass) and flexi phones (a phone which can bend and twist into many shapes without breaking). However, in 2013 there was still little evidence of innovation across the smartphone market when looking at form.

So why would 2014 be any different? First, we could consider the growing need for smartphone manufacturers to differentiate themselves from each other; when all smartphones look the same, it’s much harder for manufacturers to compete, particularly, against those with bigger marketing budgets. Second, technology is continuing to advance at an astronomical pace, and, as a result new form concepts are becoming increasingly likely as we enter 2014. Finally, it's worth considering the impact that other technology device categories can play on the diversity of smartphone form. The majority of us are now used to the smartphone being a “catch-all” device for doing anything that doesn't require a laptop or PC, but if we also own tablets (and possibly smartwatches) then some usages and behaviours are going to shift away from the smartphone. This means, changes in smartphone design will, in part, be defined by how all technology device categories evolve more generally.