Then, along came the iPhone.
I don’t need to tell you the end of this story. Every one of the above phones was rendered obsolete by Apple’s black rectangle. Whatever flaws it had were forgiven in light of the fact that Steve Jobs had staged a coup against the mobile phone industry, giving phone manufacturers the upper hand where the carriers had once dictated the terms.
Did the other mobile phone manufacturers use their newfound liberty to experiment even more exuberantly with their industrial design? Of course not. They each copied the iPhone verbatim. A few physical keyboard holdouts remained for a couple years, such as the Motorola Droid, but one by one, they vanished, leaving the iPhone’s monolithic slab and touch-screen keyboard as the only acceptable smartphone form factor.
So complete was Apple’s 2007 triumph that the layout of the iPhone became regarded as the be-all-end-all of mobile technology design. Every other competing layout on the market was seen as backward, even if it was not the iPhone’s layout that made it superior or successful. Keyboards were not cool. Cursor buttons were not cool. Hell, even the send/end buttons were not cool. Ultimately, even the iconic main button of the iPhone became not cool.
If the design of the iPhone was better than any phone, then only an iPhone that was even more iPhoney could be better still. Where the iPhone had few buttons, later models had even fewer. Where the iPhone was slender, later models became even slimmer. Where the iPhone was wide and tall, later models became wider and taller.
What effect did this have on ergonomics? Well, just try picking up an iPhone 4 from a smooth, hard surface. Where those uncool older phones could be held tightly, the wide and skinny smartphones of today prohibit a strong grip because our fingers just aren’t long enough. There is nothing remotely ergonomic about any smartphone. Just look at the default grip of an iPhone from this stock photo:
Notice the delicate way the person is holding the phone. They don’t have much finger left to really grasp it anyway, and there’s no chance they could wrap their hand around it they could a Nokia candy bar. The touch screen enables the user to initiate highly consequential actions like transferring money or sending compromising photos with a mere finger graze, so the user would be holding it gingerly even if it were smaller. The slippery materials from which it is built make it easy to drop.
The result of this industrial design is a phone that does not perform well under stressful situations. Whether the user is attempting to use a smartphone while running, driving, or being hunted by a killer robot, the device is cognitively expensive to simply hold while preventing one handed use by its size, and droppability. Have you ever tried to take a photo with an iPhone in a highly physical situation like a mosh pit? Good luck.
This unergonomic, user-hostile form factor may not be an accident. Smartphones do not like to share your attention. They demand that you look at them, hold them with both hands, constantly check them. Where the phones of yesteryear were wildly styled, every smartphone is pretty much the same, so it just disappears into your hand. Perversely, where the 80s concept cars were designed to merge with the driver for the driver’s benefit, smartphones merge with the user for their own benefit. A well-designed car cockpit gets out of the way and allows you to focus on the world around you. A smartphone gets out of the way and allows you to focus on the world inside the screen, the world of likes and claps and reacts and meaningless dopamine hits.