Smartphone design has changed little in recent years. Sure, phones have gotten bigger and thinner, but they’ve maintained the soap box form factor that Steve Jobs and his cronies popularized more than a decade ago. That may be about to change.
After years of phone sales stagnating, manufacturers are starting to experiment with new design elements, user experiences, and even new phone shapes. This experimentation got underway at the end of 2018 and is about to bloom in full force on February 25, at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.
Seamless phones with no holes or buttons
Imagine a phone that has no visible holes, no USB-C ports, no stereo minijack, no buttons, no SIM tray, no speaker grilles. A phone that feels like a solid slab of glass that magically lights up.
In theory it seems like an impossible sci-fi feat: How do you operate something completely devoid of buttons? How do you connect to the cell-phone network without a SIM?
To get rid of USB-C and the headphone jack, the Meizu uses wireless charging, Bluetooth audio, and the usual LTE/Wi-Fi communications. The Vivo does the same, but charges through magnetic metal pins flush with the back surface and, instead of LTE, uses 5G.
To avoid speaker grilles, which are needed with traditional sound drivers so the sound blows out the body, these phones use piezo-electric technology that makes their OLED displays vibrate so they can act as loudspeakers.
To eliminate the buttons for power and volume, both Vivo and Meizu replaced them with touch surfaces integrated on the body’s edges. These surfaces have haptic feedback. When users touch them, they feel like they are clicking physical buttons, much like Apple did with the home button in the iPhone 7 and 8.
There is no SIM tray because the phones exclusively support e-SIM, the integrated virtual SIM that is used by gadgets like the Apple Watch to connect to the cell-phone network.
The Meizu has a protuberant patch on the back, where the camera lenses are, but the Vivo’s cameras are completely flush with its all-glass body.
It’s the natural last step of the phone’s existing form factor, realizing something Jonathon Ive teased in the video that introduced iPhone X: “For more than a decade, our intention has been to create an iPhone that is all display,” he begins, “a physical object that disappears into the experience.” The iPhone, with its notch eyesore, was not this Holy Grail. But both the Vivo and Meizu seem to achieve this. They are the purest expression of the design that Ive himself initiated 12 years ago.
The only problem is timing: Some of their features may have arrived too early. E-SIM doesn’t have wide carrier support around the world (yet). Wireless charging can also be inconvenient for some. These phones use wireless charging at 18W, which is nowhere as fast as a 50W wired charger (on the other hand, iPhones come with 10W wired chargers). So there’s likely a bit of compromise in terms of functionality. Perhaps this is why the phones, while functional, will be limited runs to demonstrate the company’s technological prowess. But if the past is any indication (Vivo had the same “show now, launch later” approach with the Vivo Apex 2018), you may expect these phones to be user products by the summer.
The killing of the notch
If you look at phones today, 99% of them look like the iPhone X or XS, with a notch on the top that varies in size depending on the manufacturer. Apple “invented” the notch out of necessity: The company wanted to eliminate bezels, so it eliminated the home button. But, since there was no under-display TouchID technologies at the time, Apple decided to switch to facial recognition. After all, there was seemingly no way to eliminate the selfie camera and the ear speaker (there was, as we will see below). But since good facial recognition required multiple sensors, it also needed a large surface.
The iPhone X got its notch, and soon after most phone makers started to imitate Apple even while many people viciously attacked the notch. But now some of these companies have made it their quest to eliminate the notch once and for all. One can imagine that they want to reignite demand by offering a true full screen, luring people who don’t like the notch. And that means moving the selfie camera somewhere else.
Some, like Vivo, swapped the notch for an electro-mechanical pop-up camera back in 2018. It appears when you want to take a selfie, only to disappear into the phone’s body when you are done. The Apex 2019 that we will see at MWC will have that, too.
Other companies decided to hide the camera under a sliding display, like the Oppo Find X, Xiaomi Mi Mix 3, the Honor Magic 2, and the Lenovo Z6. Whenever you want to take a selfie, you just push down the display with your thumb. The display moves about a third of an inch, revealing the cameras hiding on a second surface on the body of the phone. Take your photos and then push up again to hide it. The Oppo Find X has a motorized sliding mechanism while the rest have a purely mechanical system that is similar to some of the Nokia phones from the ’90s.
The third notch-killing designs comes originally from Samsung: Using a patented method to drill OLED panels with lasers, the Korean company was able to make a hole so the selfie camera’s sensor could see through the display. Its Galaxy A8s was the first to swap the giant eyesore notch to the smaller eyesore hole. Since then, many other phones are adopting the same display–which Samsung Electronics sells to third parties–to kill the notch.
This is the Nubia X, which also has a screen on the back, it's so cool! pic.twitter.com/8wWkYfJONE
— Ice universe (@UniverseIce) November 25, 2018
But the most radical design to get rid of the notch is the dual-screen phone on the Nubia X and the Vivo Nex 2. Rather than trying to hide the selfie camera or put it elsewhere, these phones eliminate it completely. Instead, they add a second OLED display to the back of the phone, so you can easily flip it around and use it to capture better selfies with the larger resolution main camera and the flash–perfect for night selfies.
While these phones came at the end of 2018, they will be a powerful influence at MWC this year.
The most important design trend of 2019 (and beyond) is folding phones. The invasion of phones that expand into tablets or tablets that collapse into phones–whatever you prefer–is now a certainty.
The promise is simple: carry around a phone smaller than the current models for simple tasks like mail, messaging, banking, and car sharing. Expand it into a large surface for watching movies, reading news and books, and more.
But in most of the foldable designs announced to date, the collapsed phone is not as compact as you might imagine. The reasons are limitations in battery size and folding angles–the models we have seen so far can’t close as perfectly as a notebook, requiring a bit of space separating the surface near the hinges.
But this is likely to change soon. Manufacturers believe that this futuristic form factor is the next virginal expansion land. Google, for instance, has been working for years on Android that can work seamlessly across multiple form factors while, at the same time, working on technologies to make its own foldable Pixel.
We will probably also see a version of the Motorola Razr with a flexible display, a limited 250,000-unit run exclusive to Verizon to the tune of $1,500 each. But this one, instead of transforming into a tablet, will go from a tiny folded phone into a large phone. It’s the rebirth of the flip phone, with a flexible display.
And this week, Xiaomi previewed a new foldable concept in the Chinese social network Weibo. Unlike the other models, the Xiaomi uses two folds. So far, it’s the most elegant and attractive of them all, thanks to its thin profile when unfolded and its compact folded volume when folded.
Swap touch for gestures
There are not many details about this, but LG has teased something called “Goodbye Touch” for MWC:
It could be a hint for a new touchless, hand gesture-controlled phone. In other words, you could use it without even touching it. We know that Intel and Leap Motion have been working on gesture technology, but applied to augmented reality. It’s hard to imagine why we would need to open Whatsapp by waving our hands. Seems gimmicky, but we will see how it works in real life.
The phone is not dead, but the iPhone model is
It’s only natural: In a market that is so stagnant and desperate to make people upgrade, manufacturers will keep trying new things. Some, like this gesture thing, will feel very weird right out of the gate.
But some of these trends will stick. My bet is that the seamless candy bar will be the norm in 2020. And some will enable an industry renaissance. Foldables are the obvious one in that category, because they will offer so much functionality in very little space.
The death of the phone has been greatly exaggerated. The phone as a platform for design innovation and experimentation is clearly very much alive.