Is the 'dumb blonde' phone here to stay?

Analysis: How the battle of form and function is raging in the mobile industry
Written by Jo Best, Contributor

Analysis: How the battle of form and function is raging in the mobile industry

Sleek, svelte mobiles are all the rage. So is it goodbye to the clunkers that ran enterprise apps and 3G? Jo Best looks at the evolution of the mobile phone from brainiac to bombshell.

Mobile phones for the business set remain curiously mired in ancient form factors, pumping up clunky handsets with PC-borrowed functionality while consumer-focused devices are racing to the bottom to see who can be shiniest and tiniest, seemingly disregarding features in pursuit of the perfect body.

Which way will the market go - are we heading for an era where looks are everything and the smart phone loses out to the bimbo?

Take a look backwards for a moment to the heady days of 2004. Remember the first wafer-thin, any-colour-as-long-as-it's-black Razr? Didn't even have the one megapixel plus camera that its rivals did but the public spooned it up anyway. And with the Razr still shifting, other manufacturers are racing to make devices shinier, tinier and all the more saliva-inducing. But does that mean they'll continue to forego more up-to-date functionality?

The popularity of the LG Chocolate phone - a glossy 2G candy bar model with a chessboard keypad and heat sensitive buttons - speaks volumes on this point. Nearly two million have been served outside LG's home market of South Korea, showing consumers can do without certain functionality if they're sufficiently seduced by a technological flash of ankle.

Making utile things beautiful is a trend that's has been dominating the entire consumer electronics industry, as monitor makers, MP3 manufacturers and assorted gadget designers seek to differentiate their products by making them appeal to the eye as well as the tech brain - a trend no doubt inspired by the brisk sales of Apple's ubiquitous iPod.

So where did this apparent function famine come from in the mobile phone space? Is it consumers or manufacturers that have lost interest in all the applications 3G and smart operating systems were meant to enable?

According to John Barton, director of sales at LG Mobile, phone buyers don't expect - and don't necessarily demand - beautiful phones that are full of functionality too. "You can't have everything - consumers don't believe [their phone] can be master of all things, they think it's a jack of all things," he said.

Andrew Brown, IDC's European mobile devices programme manager, said the operators and manufacturers have played their part in the dumbing down. "Everyone gets very excited about aesthetics. It's easier to sell design than it is to sell feature functionality - it's laziness." Good looks are immediately apparent to the average buyer - the benefits of having 3G connectivity or a smart operating system are not.

But our glazed love of form over function won't last forever. Design is always likely to be prominent in consumers' minds, say the analysts, but there is a limit to how many features consumers will trade just to attract admiring glances when they leave their phone on the pub table.

Carolina Milanesi, principal analyst at Gartner, said: "It's about finding the right balance between the two. Fashion is becoming more and more important... but still people want the bare minimum: a camera, MMS support, possibly a bit of browsing."

Step forward the inexplicable Nokia lipstick phone to see what happens when functionality is seconded to form: in fighting to create a phone that fit in the smallest of pockets, the Finns shrunk the 7280's screen to thumbnail size and ditched a keypad in favour of a scroll wheel which made texting an arduous task.

In the business market, functionality has long trampled all over form - but will this always be so? Will mobile email and sales force automation always be wrapped up in a gormless 'piece of toast' form factor?

IDC's Brown says: "Broadly speaking, there's a wide range of 'pieces of toast'. Perhaps it isn't as sexy [as consumer designs] but it will survive a fall. Aesthetics only take you so far."

Ignatio Germode, Motorola's director of design, told silicon.com there is hope for better looks from business phones. "There are sometimes these preconceptions - people think businesspeople like boring stuff, young people like lots of different colours... [Business devices] are still a status symbol and people still want to have a beautiful device. It's more a case of what they're willing to compromise [for functionality]," he said.

Motorola has given its business device, the Q, a spit and polish and applied a little Razr-style slimline gloss to the corporate phone cum PDA. Others are also getting the idea that useful doesn't have to mean dumpy - the Treo's aerial has been whipped off and RIM has clearly had a bit of a word with its own design department that may or may not have included the words 'less', 'bloody', 'ugly' and 'please'.

About time too, says Gartner's Milanesi. "The BlackBerry a fantastic product for what you need it to do but the looks aren't keeping up with what the traditional manufacturers are doing."

We've come a long way then, both for consumers and business buyers, but the coin is up in the air over whether design is enough of a selling point alone to convince customers to buy, regardless of what else the phone promises in terms of features.

However, as phone makers fight harder and harder to differentiate themselves, the first devices to promise both looks and advanced features will really be special - even the most hard-to-impress business buyer can't fail to have their head turned by such an elusive combination. Manufacturers, take note.

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