I remember hearing the term "stylin'" from back in the 1970s, when such meant dressing up for an event - in other words, wearing something other than jeans. Plaid pants were big back then, so it's best we move on from this point, but not without acknowledging that how something (or, returning to our previous theme for the moment, someone) looks matters, and potentially a great deal, in a variety of contexts. The question I want to explore today is just how much the industrial design (or "style") of a given mobile device influences buying decisions. A great deal of money is spent on industrial design, both from an artistic and structural perspective, as well as in terms of tooling, manufacturing, and marketing, so this is no small matter. Take automobiles, for example. The number-one factor here influencing consumer purchasing decisions? That's right - style. And while I'm normally a function-comes-first (often noted as "form follows function") kind of guy, even I have rejected products from further consideration because I thought they were ugly. This attitude often has major consequences in terms of mission success, picking a product that looks good over one that could more optimally get the job done.
I've faced this a number of times myself over the years. An early example was, during my time running the Network Products Group at laptop pioneer GRiD Systems Corp., senior management's choice of using IBM Series/1 minicomputers over my preference for Data General Eclipse minicomputers as a basis for GRiD Central, our pioneering server system. The Eclipse was, well, ugly; OK, I'll admit to that. But its performance, price, and especially its operating system would have made my life a lot easier. Apart from being the first person ever to run UNIX Version 6 on a Series/1, this project was more nightmare than it should have been - and all of this over what visitors would see through the glass wall of the machine room!
So even though we can't discount the value of good industrial design, we may, today, be reaching the limits of its contributions in handsets and perhaps even tablets. "They all look the same" is a statement I commonly hear today, meaning that stylin' is unlikely to remain a differentiator as we move into an era where the PDA form factor dominates - make that defines - smartphones. What more can be done with your basic rectangular parallelepiped? Stylistic personalization is becoming an aftermarket fixture, mostly through cases of various forms - and here style is often indeed the determining factor, over what might be available in terms of physical protection of the device itself.
Industrial design is too valuable - and too expensive - to waste. But it may have reached the limits of its potential contribution in the mobile devices we have today.
Mathias is a principal at Farpoint Group, a wireless advisory firm in Ashland, Mass.