September 13, 2017

The Iconic iPhone

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With any Apple-re­lated top­ic, there is no short­age of opin­ions. Most of them are rushed, sen­sation­al­is­tic, and not worth any­one’s time—they’re just there to attract pageviews and boost ad rev­enue. Then there’s the small seg­ment of thought­ful and nuanced pieces that are actu­ally worth your time.

In any case, with this flood of opin­ion, you can be sure the “cor­rect take” is hid­den in there some­where. How­ev­er, with the iPhone X notch, that does­n’t seem to be the case.

So here’s my take:

There are two com­mon argu­ments against the notch. The first is that the notch is awk­ward in soft­ware. It stands out in iOS’s all-white inter­face. And it’s there, awk­wardly lurk­ing, in land­scape when you watch videos and when you browse the web.

The prob­lem is, the peo­ple com­plain­ing aren’t using the actual device, they are watch­ing screen record­ings from emu­la­tors. One thing with we learned from the Essen­tial Phone, which also has a notch, is that users stop see­ing it within hours. It’s just like how peo­ple with glasses don’t see their glasses frames. The notch being an annoy­ing eye­sore is not an actual prob­lem.

That’s not to say the soft­ware treat­ment of the notch is per­fect. There are many rough edges and some things are down­right inel­e­gant (like land­scape web brows­ing), but it’s impor­tant to remember that Apple has total con­trol of the iOS inter­face. They’re already chang­ing things, and the inter­face is only going to get bet­ter from here.

The other argu­ment is that the notch is ugly. Why not just cover up the sides and hide it?

The ugly argu­ment is hard to rebut because aes­thet­ics is sub­jec­tive. Per­son­al­ly, I think the notch is beau­ti­ful and the notch serves a strategic purpose.

The iPhone has always been icon­ic. Ask any­one to draw an iPhone and they’ll draw a rec­tan­gle with a home button.

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Now, ask peo­ple to draw an Android phone, and you won’t get a consistent result.

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Android phones can look like any­thing, but you know an iPhone when you see one.

Here’s Sam­sung’s Galaxy S8 next to LG’s V30 smartphone.

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They are nearly iden­ti­cal from the front. Philippe Star­ck, an indus­trial design­er, opined that bezel-­less phones mark the end of phone design. He’s right. There’s a lot less to design now.

So what hap­pens when the iPhone’s home but­ton dis­ap­pears? The iconic iPhone silhouette also disappears.

Then there’s the other prob­lem of the fron­t-­fac­ing cam­era and FaceID.They still need to be in front and they aren’t ever going away — we will always have front-facing cameras.

How do you solve these two problems? Design is all about com­pro­mises and man­ag­ing trade­offs. And the notch is def­i­nitely a trade­off. It’s there because we need space for cameras and sensors.

But here’s the thing: the notch solves the all-bezel-­less-­phones-look-the-same problem. They’ve cre­ated the new iconic iPhone silhouette. Apple has man­aged to turn an unde­sir­able trade­off into an ele­gant solu­tion. That’s incredible.

So a few years from now when you ask a stranger to draw an iPhone, they won’t be draw­ing this, or this:

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They’ll be drawing this:

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