Article: An Iconic Look

by on August 3, 2017

As September has usually come to mean new iPhones, the rumors of the next iPhone have been taking over just about any way I consume technology news. This includes alleged parts leaks, mockups, and even some software clues. Obviously, it’s a bit exciting and it all should be taken with a grain of salt.

In case you hadn’t been following along, I’ll summarize the majority of the ideas. A few of the rumors had already leaned heavily on the less-bezels look, as this was the easy, low-hanging fruit for a redesign. In the Android world, flagship phones have gotten to the point of having a very small frame around a display, and apparently unless your phone looks like that, it’s outdated. I’m all for less “chin” and “forehead” so that the screen can stretch a bit further to the edges, but I don’t think it should come at the expense of symmetry, nor losing the home button.

If you recall some of the earlier LCD and plasma TVs, the bezels were huge compared to the almost nonexistent ones today (also why 32″ TVs seem so darn small in stores today, when that was my living room TV just a few years ago). From a product experience standpoint, this reduction was a positive: smaller footprint and weight, less distraction around content, and smaller packaging. While the same could be said for phones, especially if the user lives on YouTube or Netflix, we’re talking of a reduction of square inches, rather than probably a square foot or two on those older TVs.

The next rumored change is either the lack of a home button, a software home button, or something else. If there’s a software home button in the approximate location, I don’t think that would be as big of a deal, as the iPhone 7 already has a software-controlled home button (try and use it if the phone is completely off, it’s basically dead). What might be tough is a software one would lose that tactile feel of the button’s specific location. Second, if the button remains, but is software-based, what happens to Touch ID? Quite a few rumors are suggesting that it would go away, to be replaced with some sort of facial recognition. Others suggest it might move to the back. Neither of these suggestions particularly wow me, as I’ve seen a few Android phones with rear fingerprint readers and it’s awkward, especially if you use your phone in any sort of stand or on a table. Facial recognition, if done well, could be interesting, but even with all the what-ifs, my greasy fingers will still always be touching my phone at or around the time when I’d need to authenticate. In other words, trying to get a read of my face still conceptually seems like more work.

Although these ideas were mostly kicked around even with the iPhone 7, there have been a few new additions. Stephen Troughton-Smith dug into the HomePod firmware that was accidentally posted by Apple. He found two notable things: references to a feature, code-named Pearl ID, and an icon that could be the next iPhone and references to a feature. Pearl ID seems to be an authentication method, with references to FaceDetection. Again, we might be having to more intentionally look at our phones when using them (and my Apple Watch may get more use for Apple Pay in public as the less ridiculous device). On the other hand, I want to focus on the icon.

If you haven’t seen it, the shape is very simple, but the idea is a standard round-rectangle iPhone, but the outer frame is a darker blue than the inner area. At the top, the outer frame dips down a bit, presumably where the earpiece, camera, and ambient light sensors sit, but there’s screen on either side. The end result is a bit of a U-shape, if the bottom part of the U was most of an iPhone screen.

This has led to its own level of speculation that certain items could be crammed at the top on either site of the notch. This could produce a very neat-looking effect on a black iPhone with an OLED screen. However, what all the overly eager rumor commenters seems to fail to remember is that there’s a lot of crap that appears in the status bar. My normal ones right now include signal strength, carrier, Wi-Fi, alarm, Bluetooth, and battery. Throw in Location Services sometimes, VPN, and battery percentage and you’ve almost filled the width on an iPhone SE, maybe a 6/6S/7. Depending on your carrier, the text can be quite lengthy (why do we need that all the time anyway?), and carriers sometimes display even more text with Wi-Fi calling enabled. Even if this all fits on either side of the notch, the notch would be right in the clock’s current location. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have the time up there than my carrier’s name, or an indicator that really doesn’t change (Bluetooth).

And while I don’t doubt the new iPhone will be a technological marvel, I do have some concerns that a redesign this radical will lose something. Back in September, John Gruber commented on the notion that the iPhone 7 was boring, as it looked much like its predecessors:

Here’s the genius of the black and (especially) jet black iPhones 7. In a very seductive way, they look like something new and desirable. And at the same time, they are instantly recognizable as iPhones. That is what Manjoo and similar-minded I’m-bored-with-Apple’s-designs pundits don’t get. With a highly successful product and brand, new versions need to strike a balance between familiarity, the foundations of the brand, and hot newness. The bored-with-Apple crowd just wants the hot newness.

You need to recognize a Porsche 911 as a 911. An iPhone needs to look like an iPhone. The design needs to evolve, not transform. The thing to keep in mind is that the iPhone itself, what it looks like in your hand, is the embodiment of the iPhone brand. There is nothing printed on the front face of an iPhone because there doesn’t need to be. The Apple logo is the company’s logo. The iPhone’s logo is the iPhone itself.

It is notable that the iPhone 7 breaks an eight-generation-long pattern of Apple putting out a distinctive new industrial design every other year. I think there are two factors at play. First, whatever design is coming next wasn’t ready yet. Second, after five major form factors (original, 3G, 4, 5, 6), the iPhone has gotten ever closer to its idealized form. Iconic brands don’t zig-zag. They move forward with seemingly inexorable momentum. Their evolutions often feel inevitable, not surprising. Weak brands move like ping-pong balls; strong brands move like bowling balls. A new Rolex needs to look like a Rolex. A Leica needs to look like a Leica. A new Coca-Cola bottle needs to look like a Coca-Cola bottle.

My small worry is that these rumors fail to understand and appreciate this concept. I see a lot of comments on various new Android phones from reviewers that somehow a screen with a very thing bezel and not much else is futuristic and sexy (gag), but to me it’s just a boring frame and if you were to line these devices up, apart from a logo printed on them, they look much the same. An iPhone 7, while sharing nothing in common with the original iPhone technology-wise, still shares some brand lineage. It’s not necessarily for cheesy, nostalgic reasons, but that Apple has been iterating and making a better iPhone year after year. To just make something that looks like it could have a Samsung, LG, or HTC logo on it would almost feel like a bigger failure than a slightly-better iPhone 7.

Although many of these rumors are probably nothing more than false speculation, I do hope that Apple’s next iPhone still feels like an iPhone. If you recall, Apple sort of acknowledged this with the iPhone 6 box by not printing a picture on the lid, but rather embossing just a rounded rectangle with a home button and earpiece. Without any logos or extra text, these three things, along with a rear camera in the upper-left corner immediately register as “iPhone” in many people’s minds.

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