Geekend: Blackberry's Passport & Phone Design's Future - InformationWeek

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9/26/2014
10:06 AM
David Wagner
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Geekend: Blackberry's Passport & Phone Design's Future

BlackBerry's chunky Passport begs the question: Is it time to ditch the rectangular phone for something new?

This week BlackBerry announced a square phone and it came out that a lot of iPhone 6s are turning into boomerangs. With all these new shapes in phones, it actually got me kind of excited. I didn't know I was allowed to have them in any other shape but a rectangle. Is it time to radically re-think the shape of our phones? Let's consider some other options.

We might as well start with BlackBerry's square Passport. It actually isn't quite a square. It is more of a fat rectangle with a square screen. Still, it is a two-handed device at a full 3.5 inches wide, a full inch or more wider than even "big" phones, like the Galaxy or the new iPhone 6 Plus, which are often criticized as difficult to use with smaller hands. And unlike most candy-bar phones, it has only one orientation because it has a physical keyboard.

This isn't a full review. Honestly, I've never held one. They might be awesome. But what strikes me instantly is that BlackBerry has simply given up on the idea that their phones would ever be used for fun. If they thought you'd ever do something like watch a movie or even a YouTube video on it, they'd never give you a square screen. Not putting the screen in the HD standard aspect ratio of 16:9 is absolutely analog. Actually it is worse than analog because that's at least 4:3.

[Want more on the new BlackBerry? See BlackBerry's Hardware Hail Mary: 4 Challenges.]

Clearly, BlackBerry just thought, "Fine, we know only hardcore business users use this phone. Let's give them the best work space we can." So they widened the keyboard to make it more useful and they put a nice, big workspace on top, and the square was more attractive than other ratios. Here's one in action:

I'm not going to kick a company when it is down. But that was a BlackBerry in-house demo. Did that look fun to you? I think I'll have to pass on the square.

Still, let's give the folks at BlackBerry a round of applause because they had the guts to make a phone that didn't look like every other phone. That's something Apple used to get credit for. Even Apple just made the iPhone 6 Plus by stretching a regular iPhone.

Speaking of which, Apple has invented another new shape to address -- the boomerang. Apparently iPhone 6s are bending in people's pockets. Check out this (clearly shameless hit grabbing) video of it in action:

That's some pretty substantial bending with relative ease. Who would possibly want a phone that could do that? People who think their phones will come back to them if they throw them? People who think it is just a little too big and want to shrink it to the size a regular iPhone?

I mean, look at that. You could use it as a Slim Jim.

No, not that kind of Slim Jim. This kind.

You could also shine it up really well and use it as compact. You could put grapes on one end, hit the other end really hard, and launch the grapes into another cubicle like a catapult.

Heck, maybe Apple intended it to do that. After all, for nearly a century phones were bent so they go around our faces. Maybe they'll add a rotary dial to the iPhone 7.

Still, I think I'll pass. Too much like my old flip phone. So what's next?

Fans of The Office might remember how to "unleash the power of the pyramid."

Actually, I think the idea of a triangular phone isn't a bad one, but The Office has it upside down. The point shouldn't be at the top but on the bottom. Isn't the problem with your phone that you have trouble reaching all the letters with your thumb when you are texting? What if your phone tapered at the bottom so the keyboard is easier to reach while the screen was wider? Almost like a trapezoid? Too funky?

Another great idea comes from a pair of concept phones. How does a totally round phone sound? Check out the phones by Apple and Daniel Lau. They look snazzy. I'm especially fond of Lau's phone, the Sero, which looks a lot like a Nest thermostat or a hockey puck. The Sero solves one of my biggest problems with my phone -- it has a spool to wrap my headphones around.

But I'd be remiss if I made fun of the square BlackBerry for being hard to watch video on and didn't say the same thing about a round screen. At least the round screen looks new and fresh, but it will cut off the corners of your favorite media. I'd also be worried about dropping my phone. I live in San Francisco. Could you imagine dropping your phone at the top of a hill and having it roll all the way to the bottom -- only to be smashed by a streetcar?

I think I'd still enjoy showing off my round phone at a conference until everyone else had one though. Let's keep it on the short list.

In the end, though, there's one shape that keeps coming back to me as the ideal phone shape -- the hourglass. Just a slight taper in the middle would make a current smartphone so much easier to use. It would be sleek and sexy like a sports car with gentle curves and nice lines. Having a soft indentation in the middle would make it easier to hold, and it would make it easier to text if you brought the virtual keyboard up to the center of the phone. As long as the thin part in the middle wasn't too extreme, it wouldn't interfere with the 16:9 aspect ratio to watch media. If you flipped the phone sideways, the two "lobes" of the hourglass would make it ideal to hold as a gaming controller. And the rounded edges might make it harder to break if it was dropped.

The more I think about this, the more I'm done with rectangles. It is time for someone to come up with a bold new shape to the phone. What shape would you choose? Am I onto something with the hourglass? Should phones be zigzag or like the bat signal? Is BlackBerry's square phone a great idea or stupid? Is this its comeback device? Do you just like the current shape of phones? Tell me in the comments.

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David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio
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jastroff
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jastroff,
User Rank: Ninja
9/26/2014 | 3:49:59 PM
Re: Phone Shapes
Maybe that WAS Blackberry's idea of a "turnaround"  -- they were outside the box thinkers, but that was a long time ago.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
9/26/2014 | 2:50:08 PM
Re: Phone Shapes
@alison- What is funny about phones today is they work best as anything but a phone. I'm not 100% sure that we've done this on purpose. If I thought we had, maybe I'd be less interested in a new design. We are clearly using our phones as phones less so it is time to address what they are. But they're not tab;ets because we have those. What are they? Backup tablets? Texting devices? I'm not sure.
Alison_Diana
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Alison_Diana,
User Rank: Author
9/26/2014 | 2:45:46 PM
Re: Phone Shapes
If I recall correctly, Apple spent a lot of money bringing in Ivey and crew to focus on design and we know the results of that work. That said, there are so many instances where someone totally reinvents a common household device in a bold way and we suddenly realize how much better it is in the new format; surely phones will undergo such a transformation! Think about the early phones, with the separate mouthpiece and dial base. If I knew what that shape was, I'd let you know -- from my private Caribbean island!
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
9/26/2014 | 12:27:00 PM
Re: Design and functionality
@impactnow- You bring up an excellent point about voice activation. Maybe I'm focused ont he wrong thing. Right now, I don't think voice is good enough to replace my fingers. But it is getting very good. i also like some of the gesture controls I have with my android. Pausing a video with the flick of a wrist is the kind of first step toward hand's free control.

When the fingers stop being needed, there's no reason to shape the phone like anything but a video screen.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
9/26/2014 | 12:24:37 PM
Re: Phone Shapes
@jastroff- I do believe Blackberry was trying to distinguish themselves and they definitely did that. and i suspect among their core audience there will be fans. But if I were trying to "turnaround" Blackberry, I'd be coming up with a bold design that attracted non-business users. Maybe there just isn't one. Maybe the rectangle is the best we can do without makign the thing too expensive. 
impactnow
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impactnow,
User Rank: Author
9/26/2014 | 12:02:54 PM
Design and functionality

Dave you raise an interesting question, not only from a design perspective but from a functionality perspective. I think it's interesting we don't have an ergonomically designed smartphone that it designed for comfort and usage in the hands. We have found ways around the phones tiny key boards with Siri and other voice activated mechanisms but where is the true design genius of a phone that can be used to comfortably type on and view business as well as personal content effectively. While we are at it can we design a phone with some battery life!: )

jastroff
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jastroff,
User Rank: Ninja
9/26/2014 | 10:37:20 AM
Phone Shapes
A long, long time ago, in this galaxy, something called the Palm Pilot was invented. The complaint about it catching on was that nobody would want to walk around carrying a brick-like object. How far we've come.

Was Blackberry trying to be a competitive differentiator? Let's hope that's why they went the way they did. They should win a prize for the worst video. The round phone is unique, but I don't want to confuse it with a tin of Altoids.

How did we wind up with square? Maybe from the Palm Pilot. But I've always liked the Pyramid too.

 

 

 
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