So I am the proud new owner of a Samsung Galaxy S4. It’s a sleek piece of equipment. There’s no doubt anymore in my mind that Apple has fallen behind. Perhaps due to the loss of Steve Jobs. Perhaps they are just victims of the innovator’s dilemma: having amassed such a large following that they’ve become frozen with fear of innovating too far and losing even a portion of their masses. Whatever the reason, as I look at the GS4 on my desk, I can’t help but picture it in the same surreal iPhone commercials featuring close ups with crystal clear reflections, set on a black backdrop. Form and function, intertwined as one, coming down from the heavens this August. I feel compelled to turn it over and over again in my hand.
Yet something feels wrong. Previously enthralled with my new toy, I feel, dare I say…disappointed. Perhaps it’s the modesty of it all. Sure the device is powerful and includes every chip and function I’ve been told I want. But when the screen turns off, I’m left with little more than a cleanly molded block of glass, plastic, and metal. The child in me remembers a more magical view of the future. Weren’t the devices supposed to be a bit more elaborate? Automated tools that unfolded like Inspector Gadget’s hat? Lights and speakers that blared my music? Legs that sprouted out so it could walk away? Dr. Seus would be disappointed with us.
Seriously, why have consumer electronics become so emotionless? Some of the most valuable and profitable corners of the web connect with their users on a deeper level by showing off their creative side; from Google’s homepage doodles, to the fail whale on twitter, or the links to funny videos from Freddy, the MailChimp. I understand that there are unique challenges to developing electronics products. Yet, I would argue that even auto manufacturers, a backwards industry from the perspective of a technologist, are producing products with more character than cellphone manufacturers today.
Don’t get me wrong, I love minimalism as much as anyone. I briefly studied Industrial Design back in college, where I developed an infatuation for with the work of Dieter Rams and studied his 10 principles of design. In my own work in user experience design, I’ve repeated the mantra of “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Less was more back when there were overly bloated and poorly designed products to oppose. Now minimalism by itself just another form of drab conformity.
And cases aren’t personalization. They’re a cop-out.
Maybe this is why new device releases have becomes so disappointing. Bezels are vanishing. 4 buttons became three, than one. Ports, cameras, and speakers are artfully hidden. There’s nothing left to remove. Faster processors, higher resolution cameras, and more wireless connections, packaged into a thinner lighter package. But none of that really surprises us anymore.
It’s striking to rewatch Apple’s 1984 commercial (preferably within the context of my favorite cult film, Pirates of Silicon Valley). As the woman throws the hammer into the image of Big Brother, broadcast on a giant screen, the irony sets in that Apple deserves credit for streamlining our electronics to the point of sanitization. In 2013, we carry around the same bland devices, obsessively staring into them rather than face with the possibility of genuine social interaction. Is this our future?
Why can’t our digital devices helps us interact socially in the real world as well as on the web? Why can’t they inspire a sense of wonder? Why can’t they reflect us in more than polished glass? Certainly, modern manufacturing processes afford us the ability to develop more than just a 3 sizes fits all lineup of devices. So from my safe perch as a software guy, I say unto the world of personal electronics (in the words of my uncle), it’s time to up your game.
Bring back the whimsicality.