Note to RIM and Samsung: You’re Doing it Wrong

by Chris Seibold Apr 02, 2008

The past few days have been of interest for iPhone fans, both Samsung and RIM have shown of next generation phones that look remarkably like the iPhone. Rather than ripping off photos from other sites take a few moments to follow the links:

The RIM job
The Samsung Milli Vanilli

There isn’t a question about where the design cues came from the only question is: Did RIM and Samsung produce the designs in house with tracing paper or did the companies subcontract the task to firms who specialize in Romexes and Calaweigh golf clubs? Which ever design route RIM and Samsung chose, the motivation is clear: a hankering to cash in on a little bit of the iPhone success. The reasoning is likely as follows:

The iPhone is a rounded rectangle with a black face
The iPhone is very popular
Therefore: People want a rounded rectangle phone with a black face.

Good job fellas, you’ve essentially missed why the iPhone is popular, demeaned your own brand and called all your designers worthless hacks.

It isn’t about looks

Apple is consistently lauded for the industrial design the company churns out for the masses. Sometimes the plaudits are deserved, the MacBook Air is a fantastic design from an aesthic point of view, but the mad scramble to bless everything Apple does as the meeting point of industrial design and art is way overdone. Take, for example, the Mac Pro. It is a useful design, a practical design but not something that should make those who look for beauty in industrial design breathless. Unless a heavy aluminum box with plenty of holes is their idea of mans inhumanity to man or something*.

Which ideal is the iPhone closer to? Svelte styling for (face it) the sake of svelte styling ala the MacBook Air or the plodding “We hope wrapping the thing in metal makes it look good” design of the Mac Pro? The answer, of course, is the Mac Pro. You’re probably thinking that the iPhone that it is one of those deals where the iPhone is slightly closer to the Mac Pro side of the beauty spectrum than the MacBook Air side but that notion is mistaken. The actual graph looks like:


Yes, the graph is correct. The iPhone is uglier than the Mac Pro. It is worth noting that both the Mac Pro and the iPhone look about as good as they can while being stylistically hampered by functionality and all but there you have it. There is nothing anyone would consider particularly stylish about the iPhone. At this point you’ll argue that the iPhone is simply stunning. It takes the rectangle to a whole new level. The particularly persistent will aver that while round rects have been around for some time, the iPhone finally gets the round rect just right. The arguments are strong but unfounded, clearly the iPhone isn’t even the most attractive rounded rectangle Apple designed pocket luggable device. That honor goes to the iPod nano (not the green one).

But wait you say, people went nuts over the iPhone when it was first introduced. That much is true. If you were at MacWorld 07 there was a constant three person deep pool of people around the iPhone taking snaps of the thing through the Plexiglas enclosures. That, one might surmise, should be evidence that the iPhone design is impossible to resist. Remember two things: First, the iPhone was surrounded by Mac World attendees. Not having a three deep ring of Mac geeks around the display wouldn’t be a sign of indifference, it would be a sign of abject failure. The second thing to keep in mind is that Steve Jobs had already demoed the iPhone. Everyone knew how great the thing was supposed to be so people weren’t necessarily being pulled in by the design of the iPhone, they were being sucked in by the promise of the complete package.

Are there better looking phones?image

The complaints will undoubtably be loud and clear. If the iPhone isn’t great to look at show me a better looking phone! No problem, for the doubters:

The StarTac is just one example, the list of better looking cell phones is endless. The list of more capable cell phones is short. The list of very usable, very capable cell phones has one entry and it was designed in California by Apple.

Okay, What should RIM and Samsung be copying?

By this point the realization should be obvious. Copying the iPhone’s look is copying the worst thing about the iPhone. It is a little like trying to copy George Lucas’ film career and starting out by remaking Howard the Duck. So what should RIM and Samsung be trying to copy off the iPhone? Nothing, copying doesn’t give you an advantage it just (at best) gets you on an even playing field with the device you’re copying. Instead of obsessing over the iPhone to the point where all RIM and Samsung can do is come up with blatant copies of the device the companies should be deciding where there devices excel and focus on differentiating themselves from the iPhone by being notably better in those areas. The Blackberry is a fantastic device and anyone who has ever used one knows the twitchy thumbs you get after using one for just a few days. Your e-mails get shorter and you find yourself unconsciously checking the thing every fourteen seconds for validation of your arrival in the corporate world. By knocking off the iPhone RIM is more or less saying that “Damn, we’ve been whipped, our product is inferior.” The thing is, it isn’t. There are plenty of people who strongly prefer Blackberry’s over iPhones. So don’t be so quick to throw in the towel RIM.

For Samsung the story is a bit different. With Samsung’s version of the iPhone they’ve also tried to upgrade the software but, from early reports, Samsung seems to copying the iPhone software’s functionality. That’s not going to get Samsung where they want to be, people who want what the iPhones offers can get an iPhone. Samsung needs to concentrate on what the iPhone isn’t or what it should be, not try to make a copy of something that already exists.

Take the lesson from Apple fellas, copying gets you no where. Living off past success is just a road to depleted coffers. Go out and do something new. Make it a spectacular success or a miserable failure but don’t settle for the complete “me too” experience. Down that path lies irrelevancy.

*Which it might be. The Apple logo represents the elite, the myriad of supposed cooling holes represent the everyman, forced fit into a square with no freedom of movement. I’d go on but you need to write your own Masters Thesis Art Major Guy.


  • I agree the StarTac original clamshell was the bombshell for the mobile industry. That design set off the explosion in the status quo for carrying a cell. It also set off quite a few lawsuits of who really owned the clamshell form factor. I believe no one really won this claim out right as every cellphone company has a clamshell or “flip” phone nowadays. And you’re right on - it was useable as a phone, not much else.

    Robomac had this to say on Apr 03, 2008 Posts: 846
  • “Take the lesson from Apple fellas, copying gets you know where.”

    There’s no “know” there.

    TuCats4Me had this to say on Apr 03, 2008 Posts: 1
  • Samsung and RIM are playing the playbook: competition by ambiguation.

    Like StarTac above and the RAZR later, these were absurdly “copied” in a way that their being different by standing out from the crowd faded with the wave of copycats thereafter.

    Samsung, Nokia, and now RIM, are playing exactly this game. They think that if they are successful in muddying and confusing consumers into thinking their devices can be just as good as an iPhone then their “copycat” motives are justified.

    But they are completely wrong and ignorant to the very fact that the iPhone demographics are much more intelligent than S-N-R think they are. More than 50% of these folks are degree holders and most are well-heeled. They can think for themselves, thank you very much.

    The iPhone is called a “smart"phone for a reason.

    Robomac had this to say on Apr 03, 2008 Posts: 846
  • @TuCats

    Please, no grammatical corrections ever at this forum. It is what it is. Do your own corrections and contemplations. We are all human, we make wisttakkes. wink

    Robomac had this to say on Apr 03, 2008 Posts: 846
  • Take the lesson from Apple fellas, copying gets you no where.

    True.  But copying, then claiming to have invented it and then accusing everyone else of copying stuff you copied from someone else, has worked miracles for Apple’s bottom line.  wink

    But I totally agree with you otherwise.  The iPhone is the interface, nothing more or less.  The interface is the best in the business by a million miles.  And I think the reason why they don’t copy the interface is because that kind of slickness is probably really hard to do.  These guys change cases like they change shirts.  But no one has done what Apple has done in just using the stupid thing.  It’s like in my business when people look at a hit movie and copy all the wrong things.  “Look, Star Wars had robots.  Therefore, we need to put robots in everything!”  If making a hit movie were that easy, they’d all be hits.  If making a slick and easy-to-use interface were easy, they’d have done it already.

    I like my new cell phone, but the interface gives me a headache.  Ultimately, the features and the cost win out over the iPhone, but I’d love for my phone to be that slick and easy to use.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Apr 04, 2008 Posts: 2220
  • But Apple doesn’t claim to have “invented” anything.  They are innovators, which is not the same as inventors.  The fact that they patent their version is ok, as it is allowed under patent law.  Others are free to innovate themselves - just not make direct copies.  Lots of Apple stuff has used technology that other invented, but Apple used it in a new innovative way.

    The USB port is a very good example.  Apple never claimed to have invented it, but nobody put USB ports on their computers (as a standard offering) till Apple started doing it.  Then the rest of the industry followed.  Never has Apple claimed to have invented it.

    That is a strawman PC apologists use all the time, and it’s as wrong now as the first time it was used.

    rahrens had this to say on Apr 04, 2008 Posts: 18
  • They are innovators, which is not the same as inventors.

    Apple regularly accuses people of copying them.  If they didn’t invent it, then such an accusation holds no water whether they made their own modifications on someone else’s invention or not, especially when the people who supposedly copy them also make their own changes.

    It’s a bit of Apple marketing propaganda that Apple apologists have confused with reality.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Apr 04, 2008 Posts: 2220
  • I think you are overestimating the degree to which the Blackberry 9000 is copying the iPhone. The Blackberry is a very succesfull product in and of itself, wraping it in chrome doesn’t change the fundementals.

    simo66 had this to say on Apr 06, 2008 Posts: 78
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