22 October 2006

Style, function and the imperfect cellphone [International Herald Tribune]

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Apple
“No object has had as dramatic an impact on our lives in the past decade as the cellphone. Only the computer comes close. But more of us use a cellphone, and our relationship with it is more intimate. So why are they so badly designed?” asks Alice Rawsthorn, who is the design critic of the International Herald Tribune and was director of the Design Museum in London from 2001 to 2006.

Rawsthorn is not just referring to the physical design, but also the user interface:

“By redesigning their software to incorporate each new function on a piecemeal basis within the same small box, many companies have ended up with incoherent user interfaces. That’s why cellphones can seem difficult to use, and why you have to relearn how to perform basic tasks whenever you buy a new one. This problem is complicated by the historic division between design and engineering in many companies, and by the power of the cellular networks, which impose their own demands on the design of new models.”

But she provides another reason why there are so few distinctive cellphones: the dominance of a few very big manufacturers. “The price of entry is too high for the small, entrepreneurial companies that tend to drive design innovation in other sectors.”

However, “all this could change if a dynamic new player entered the market, and the likeliest contender to do so is Apple.” An Apple phone, she thinks, “would involve rethinking everything about the cellphone and how it works, including the role of the networks.”

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