What comes after thin?

Thin sells. It has worked for Motorola, helping the company to increase handset shipments at a 40 percent annual rate last year, against a backdrop of overall market growth of around 20 percent (source: Strategy Analytics). By offering the thinnest handset available, Motorola made its product stand out from the ranks of similarly specified devices; it needed no advanced features or cutting edge innovations – indeed, the RAZR has relatively few of the bells and whistles available for the same price from other manufacturers – it just looks good.

I have already expressed my concerns over the sustainability of this approach for the ‘company-defining’ role Motorola has assigned to the RAZR concept (see ‘Playing to win in the handset market‘). However, in the short-term, there is no denying thin has been beautiful for Motorola’s sales.

Of course, nothing remains unique in the mobile business for very long. Samsung has already announced it will trump the RAZR’s 14mm dimension with a device less than 10mm thick – the T509. Nokia is apparently preparing to release it’s own skinny model later this month and LG is enjoying success with its ultra-thin ‘ Chocolate’ phone in South Korea.

This drive for a reduced waist-line recalls the demand for general miniturisation which dominated the industry in the late 1990s and early 00s. Then the challenge was simply to reduce the overall size and weight of handsets and make them more pocketable. Today’s engineering approach is as much about style as it is about portability. Thickness remains the one dimension in which a phone can be substantially reduced without causing ergonomic problems, but there are compromises – Samsung’s device, for instance, dispenses with a camera to allow for its particularly slim form factor.

Slimness is currently the dominant industrial design trend. However, you can bet the design departments of all the major handset manufacturers are working overtime on the Next Big Thing. If Motorola has led this wave, you can be sure its competitors won’t allow it to start the next.

What can they do differently? What comes after slim? I’m not talking about the slow evolution of established designs here, I mean the next innovation which really grabs customers’ attention in the way RAZR did a couple of years ago.

This may sound simple, but I think it will be colour. It has already started to edge into Motorola’s portfolio through it’s range of multi-coloured PEBL devices and some limited edition RAZRs. However, no manufacturer has properly explored the possibilities of offering a truly exciting range of colours.

It classic consumer marketing. Look at Apple with the iPod Mini and the early iMacs. The range was defined by the spectrum of colours it encompassed. Users didn’t chose whether they wanted to buy, they chose which they wanted to buy. Offering effective choices can be a powerful sales motivator simply by giving users the chance to differentiate and express themselves by making the purchase.

I really don’t understand why the mobile industry has been so slow to embrace this simple ‘innovation’. The manufacturing cost is negligible. Admittedly it does raise some issues of stock control, but you’d hope these would be relatively easy to manage within a 21st century supply chain.

White, silver, black – the occassional pink phone for the ladies – it is hardly a very inspiring choice. There’s a huge opportunity here for that very reason – bright, vibrant colours would stand out against such a drab palette in the same way the RAZR’s svelte profile enabled it to cut a dash on the retail shelves.

Of course, it’s not enough to simply slap some cheap coloured plastic mouldings on a device, but handset manufacturers need only look to markets such as outdoor equipment to find examples of high quality, multi-coloured metallic finishes and coatings which can convey a real sense of differentiation and value. In the automotive industry this value is recognised directly by the manufacturers, who use exclusivity of certain paint colours to add to the unique appeal of their vehicles.

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  1. 1
    alan jones

    I was looking at the Nokia 73 series yesterday, in the company of a female friend, and she was practically angry with Nokia for imagining it could appeal to a female market with one colour scheme for the range and one graphic image. There’s three handsets in the range, but they’re all the same bronze colour, and they all bear the same graphic screenprint image. Being stuck on black and silver is a hangover from conservative male-oriented PC design and it cannot be allowed to continue.

  2. 2
    John Forsyth

    Interesting editorial (as they generally are) – though I think it is too simplistic.

    A more subtle, and in my view more likely, trend is suggested in the closing paragraphs. The mobile industry has in the past given a fair amount of space to colour as a means of personalisation, but only in the ‘elite’ segment has it paid much attention to materials. To date by far the majority of phones have been uninteresting in a tactile sense.

    Of course this is going to be a harder benefit to sell if retail outlets persist with cheap plastic dummies (would you choose a TV that way?), but as end users are beginning to perceive value in the applications and services within the phone this kind of store experience is showing itself to inadequate anyhow.

  3. 3
    Marek Pawlowski

    I think this is a very valid point about the retail experience being woefully inadequate at showcasing both the design and the services which differentiate handsets.

    The UK is particularly poorly served in the retail environment, not least because concern over theft leaves most shops more worried about protecting stock than showing it to customers.

    Poor staff training, relatively few working demonstration models and a total lack of promotion for third party applications compounds this problem.

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