Geek Stuff

Smartphone design

August 2019

Smartphone design is now boiling down to something as mundane as “the notch”.  15 years ago, I doubt we could have imagined that an inch or so of screen real estate would be the occasion for heated debates among people more likely to be accountants or gossip journalists than industrial product designers. It seems ridiculous if you go back to 2007, and remember that smartphones use to look like this:

Looking back to the pre-smartphone era, we can kind of see how the trend emerges. But as the old saying goes, hindsight is 20/20. It was the iPhone that decidedly turned things around and centered the heart of the mobile phone experience on the display. All smartphones following it were inspired by this vision—so inspired, in fact, that it resulted in at least one lawsuit.

Apple has done its best to remain the leader of this charge. Much of Apple’s efforts since 2007 have been to expand the display by reducing bezels, removing plugs and buttons…but now, what to do about the infamous notch?

“For more than a decade, our intention has been to create an iPhone that’s all display,” said Jony Ive at the iPhone X launch. Well, they’re not quite there yet. Realizing a full display phone is hard, because people actually need to use the phone like, well, a phone. That means it needs to have a speaker, and because we can’t alienate the selfie crowd, it needs a front-facing camera.

The Future of the Smartphone

Manufacturers are hard at work to find workarounds to make the ‘all display’ phone possible. The latest innovation is the ‘under-display camera’ from Oppo, a Chinese manufacturer. Coming soon in a nearby shop for the price of a mid-range used car. It’s only a matter of time before we get the full display…but when that happens, what are the next steps in smartphone design? Have we really reached “peak smartphone”?

Maybe we have. The increasing number of people buying in the second hand market may just be proof of that: if there’s nothing new in these new models, why not buy this perfectly good iPhone 7 for 70% off ? On Back Market, of course. Whatever the case, Manufacturers haven’t admitted defeat just yet. Here are the latest “innovations” that we have to look forward to:

Foldable Phones

Foldable phones are now a reality and are supposed to be the big trend in 2019, even with the delayed release of the Samsung Fold. It’s another take on making the phone all display by giving users 3 times the display when they want it.

It’s kind of cool to look at but time will tell how this will age and if it will make a positive difference in day-to-day use.


Not much to say except that these can stretch. Sorry, just not excited about that.


It would be a surprising direction for our smartphones to take, going retro and using a display technology that resembles ink and paper. Surprising but good, especially because electronic ink is much more energy efficient than an LCD screen and saves a lot of battery life. That said, e-ink means mostly black and white for now, which to me seems like a tough sell. Although colored e-ink is starting to develop, this technology is being developed with e-ink signs and posters in mind and not really for e-readers or smartphones. Each added color apparently slows down refresh rates, which would certainly be a challenge. Really looking forward to seeing how this technology progresses.

The Future is Meh, Unless Something Changes

Now that we’re approaching the reality of the ‘all display’ phones and with  cameras, screens and processors becoming only marginally better with each release, the way forward is not clear, and even a little “meh” because now we have to cover our fragile glass screens in thick sturdy cases, while also lugging our ugly chargers everywhere.

As we’re finally realizing Apple’s vision, we’re also quickly realizing that their vision has made our phones more fragile, hard to repair, energy inefficient, and extremely expensive items that we actually end up losing sleep over. If manufacturers really want to improve the lives of consumers they’re going to have to do better than fiddling with our screens. Here’s a quick list of my own smartphone wants/needs:

  1. Glue, no thank you. Let the people repair their phones (without voiding their warranties);
  2. More battery life, please. Energy efficiency FTW;
  3. Battery accessibility: We should be able to change our phone batteries without having to watch 10 tutorials (and again, without voiding our warranties)
  4. Longevity. If we’re going to spend this much money on a device, it should be built to last as long as possible. That means software support but again, also, repairability.

The notch doesn’t matter because at this point, any additional screen space gives marginal benefit and pleasure to the average user. We’ve achieved Apple’s dream and now it’s time to reach for a bigger and better one—phones that are really built around people and their needs. Fair Phone seems to be one of the only manufacturers going strongly in that direction. Their phones are certainly not perfect, but that’s exactly why we need innovation. If we’ve managed to get from the dumb phone to the all display phone in a matter of 20 years, there’s no reason why we can’t build a better, more repairable phone, with all the same bells and whistles we enjoy in the near future.


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