Monday, September 26, 2011

Thoughts On The iPhone 5

I always loved the look of the iPhone 4. When I was toying around with cell phone design, I always felt that a rejiggering of the external antenna could provide both superior reception and a chance at looking positively incredible. I'm sure a lot of you remember the old days of external antennae, back in the late 90's and early 2000's. It was just this big tumor on the top of the phone. Attractive, no. Useful, hell yes.

Unlike today, when after the iPhone 4 came out and there was endless discussion of "death grips," back then, there was no death grip. You could positively molest your cell phone and never suffer a drop in reception. Because you had a giant, honking antenna sticking out above your hand. As far as overall reception goes, I don't think that current designs have ever achieved the reception that cell phones had back then. For better or worse, though, the internal design became the standard within a few years.

When working with my designs, I was never able to, based on the information that I had, design an external antenna that both looked good and functioned. I eventually dropped the whole endeavor out of frustration, since I just knew that there was extra reception there to be had, but everything I did looked hideous. So as you can imagine, I nearly shit myself when I saw the iPhone 4. I was sure that Apple had figured it out. Obviously, as we now know, they hadn't. The iPhone 4 had a convenient little spot on the antenna that, if you touched it with so much as your pinky tip, the reception would go dead.

While I have always felt that design for design's sake is hollow, I'm frequently won over by a pretty face. Nokia jabbed at Apple, saying that reception is always goal #1, with the look coming in only after reception targets had been met. I don't think that Nokia is bullshitting there. The best reception that I've ever had has always been on Nokia phones (with the worst reception always on Sony Ericsson). And truly, when one does put design before function, as they did with the iPhone 4, you frequently end up with incredibly unattractive solutions that negate the design, like the iPhone "bumper" case.

Still, the iPhone 4 is my favorite iPhone. I love the design. Love, love, love it. This is of course funny since I would never in a million years actually own an Apple product. But that's unimportant! What's important is that the iPhone is fucking pretty. Moreover, the design oozes tactile satisfaction. As Steve Jobs has said, he wants Apple products to be "magical," and by that he means that he wants Apple products to elicit interaction. Good design makes people desire contact with the product. And while the iPhone 4 may not be a terribly good phone, as an object that I would like to simply sit there and stroke, it's an honest-to-God masterpiece.

So it is that I hope that they are keeping the same design for the iPhone 5, but I suspect that they are not. Apple's big annual products seem to have a lead time from earliest functioning prototypes to final design of around two years. That means that the iPhone 5 already had functioning test phones when they were gearing up to launch the iPhone 4. At that time, they had yet to experience the strongly negative public reaction to the iPhone reception problem, and the iPhone 4 is, as I said, fucking pretty, so the design was in all likelihood the same.

Now, we have the iPhone 5 being the first iPhone not released in the summer. Some people attributed the delay to the Japanese Earthquake, but I find that highly doubtful. Most of Apple's products are manufactured in China and Taiwan, with parts primarily manufactured there and in Korea. I suspect that the delay was to fast-track a new design, which still required well over a year from the point of decision, probably some time in July or August of 2010, to the new release date sometime in October 2011. This is obviously a guess, but I feel decently confident in it.

Again, I hope that they keep the design, since It's just so beautiful, but from a functional standpoint, they should probably change it. And lord knows, Apple has skilled designers working there, so any redesign is likely to look just as good.


Well, my prediction was wrong, but my hope was right. Maybe they found a way to fix the antenna issue without sacrificing the gorgeous design. Because, man, it's a pretty phone.

UPDATE 2: It's confirmed. No more death grip. Although, there really was never any problem with a "death grip." The problem was with a "death touch," where even the smallest contact of the pinky finger on a particular antenna point would kill reception.

iPhone 4S Test Notes: No More Death Grip (Via Gizmodo)

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