High-tech toy-makers do not always follow a smooth path to product evolution, and occasionally end up producing a new model every couple of months. New tech is actually quick to develop; good design, however, takes a lot longer, so putting good tech in a nice box is a challenge.
That happened a few years ago with personal digital assistants; it's happening again now with the descendants of the PDAs, and their new paramours, cellphones.
The marriage of the cellphone, PDA and data transfer (as in e-mail) results in the so-called third-generation (3G) telephone, or smartphone in the industrial vernacular, and it's largely been a good conjugal arrangement, if not always a beautiful one. Only recently have handset makers started paying attention to design. And design is important having a 3G handset is cool, but having a beautifully designed one is even cooler.
To my mind, the turnaround point for cellphone design was the release in late 2004 of Motorola's RAZR, an ultra-thin, sleek affair made from "airplane-grade" aluminum and polished nickel steel. It looks really sleek on the boardroom table, a vaguely menacing but glamorous device in keeping with the thinness that executives value so highly. Motorola then followed with a number of variations, including a hot-pink version (presumably for the Mary Kay Cosmetics market), and a matte-black version (presumably for the Darth Vader market).
The trick of the RAZR's success was that people who owned them tended to walk around with them in their hands, as a kind of fashion accessory. The next 3G handset maker would have to create something with a similarly attention-grabbing design. Call it clutchable cool.
Enter Research in Motion, whose BlackBerry had always been a kind of clunky utilitarian affair but was embraced by the corporate market because of its ease of use and its excellent push e-mail features. RIM, however, did not yet have a consumer-craze product. So the company dipped its big toe into the waters of high design and released the Pearl in time for this Christmas season.
Like the RAZR, the thinnest of its kind, the Pearl is the tiniest of its kind. Aside from being so small, it comes uncomfortably close to being the RAZR's country-bumpkin cousin, with its black candy-bar design, previously called the slab or brick. But it has one stroke of brilliance: the glowing off-white trackball in the middle of the smartphone, the size, shape and colour of a pearl, from which it derives its name.
Like the RAZR, the Pearl's combination of small size and the precious stone in the centre make it fabulous, designed to project cutting-edge hip. And it looks wonderful carried around as clutchable jewelry.
Although both phones are appealing and would look good on any boardroom table, they are both aimed at much different markets.
Motorola, prior to the RAZR, was designing a nondescript kind of all-purpose cellphone and was slipping in both the consumer and corporate markets. RIM, however, was conquering the corporate market with a cellphone that appealed to executives with a no-nonsense view of themselves.
The sleek RAZR, despite its candy-floss siblings, is still largely a masculine phone, to be wielded by flinty-eyed executives hoping to look unafraid to make life-and-death decisions. Its name implies beard-shaving, its shiny body suggests swords and daggers, and its flip-phone form recalls early Star Trek communicators.
RIM's Pearl, however, is moving in the opposite direction: to the consumer market. It is small and cute enough to appeal to women, yet its black body with understated, grey chrome trimmings will also make them look all business when they use it. It is at once a chocolate bar and an understated fashion accessory the perfect piece of clutchable jewelry for women who want to look authoritative and feminine at the same time.
This is not to say that men wouldn't want the Pearl, or that women would shun the RAZR; there are enough variations in both the consumer and corporate market to accommodate all buyers.
It's just that if you're looking for a smartphone as a gift, the kind of design elements that have been exploited so sensationally in the RAZR and Pearl become important.
Of course, Motorola and RIM aren't the only players demanding your attention at Christmastime. Lest we forget, there are many other makers, among them LG, Palm, Sanyo, Nokia, Samsung and Sony Ericsson, each one of them with handsome, cute or sexy products.
And they're all pushing design too. Nokia, for instance, describes its 7380 model as "an innovative fashion statement to complement your eclectic style. [It is] iconic and slim in design … sensually accentuated with leather, cloth, metal, and ceramic finishes."
All those trumpeted qualities tend to obscure some basic considerations in selecting a cellphone. Although the bulk of sexiness and cool design is reserved for 3G cellphones, there is also a market for simpler devices not everyone needs an always-on connection to an e-mail server. Not everyone wants a built-in personal information manager or even a raft of games to thumb between flights. Not everyone wants to use a telephone to kick-start a budding career in directing feature films. And some people need a phone that just makes telephone calls.
By far the most important consideration is the range of calling plans offered by the cellphone providers. One of the biggest factors driving the development of 3G cellphones has not been market demand as much as it has been the demands of telephone companies, who want to sell individual smartphone features as extras. Things like answering services, call display and downloadable ring tones all help line the telcos' pockets, and can inflate your monthly bill tremendously.
One of the biggest of these is the data-transmission feature, which allows you to transmit a photo taken by the smartphone via e-mail. Oops did I say "allows"? I meant "costs." Telcos love things like this, because they can charge you for every picture you send by data transfer.
And if you want to be constantly connected via e-mail, you could find yourself paying for the spam you also receive.
Ultimately, design and coolness are ways of detracting customers from the multiple and multiplying costs folded into the ownership of such a device.
Yes, it's nice to be seen with the latest example of clutchable cool. But it can get pricey.