Industrial Design Analysis of Apple’s supposed iPhone Gen 4
Gizmodo, in probably their scoop of the year, has written an interesting industrial design analysis of Apple’s supposed iPhone generation 4 prototype that some poor Apple employee (probably now fired) left behind.
The New Industrial Design
At first sight, this new iPhone’s industrial design seems so different from the previous two generations that it could be discarded as just a provisional case. Even while the finish is so perfect that it feels right out of the factory, some of the design language elements that are common to all Apple products are not there. Gone is the flushed screen glass against the metal rim. Gone is the single volume button, replaced by two separate ones. Gone is the seamless rim, and gone are the tapered, curved surfaces.
Despite that, however, this design is not a departure. Not when you frame it with the rest of the Apple product line. It’s all the contrary: This new iPhone gets back to the simplicity of the iMac and the iPad. In fact, you can argue that the current iPhone 3GS—with its shiny chrome rim and excessively curved back—is out of place compared to the hard edges and Dieter-Ramish utilitarianism of the iMac and the iPad. Next to the iPad, for example, the new iPhone makes sense. It has the same feeling, the same functional simplicity.
But why the black plastic back, instead of going with an unibody aluminum design? Why the two audio volume buttons? Why the seams? And why doesn’t the back have any curvature at all?
Why the plastic back?
The plastic back is the most obvious of the design choices. The iPad, with its all aluminum back, has seen its Wi-Fi reception radius reduced. The 3G version comes with a large patch on the top, probably big enough to provide with good reception. But the new tiny iPhone doesn’t have the luxury of space: It needs to provide with as much signal as possible using a very small surface. I’m sure Jon Ive is dying to get rid of the plastic back, and go iPad-style all the way, but the wireless reception is the most important thing in a cellphone. A necessary aesthetical-functional trade-off.
Why separate volume buttons?
This new iPhone uses separate buttons for the volume instead of the single button that you can find in the iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad. It’s one of the factors that may indicate that this is a provisional case, until you think about one of the most requested features for Apple’s phone: A physical button for the camera. The new iPhone has a bigger sensor and a flash, which means that the camera function keeps gaining more weight. It’s only logical to think that Apple may have implemented this two-button approach to provide with a physical shutter button. It makes sense.
Why the seams?
The seams are perhaps the most surprising aspect of the new design. They don’t seem to respond to any aesthetic criteria and, in terms of function, we can’t adventure any explanation. But they don’t look bad. In fact, the whole effect seems good, like something you will find in a Braun product from the 70s.
It’s doubtful that the seams are arbitrary, however. Either they will disappear from the final product, or they have a function we can’t foresee at this time.
Why no tapering or curves?
As you will see in a future article, the new iPhone is so miniaturized and packed that there’s no room for the tapered, curved surfaces. Everything is as tight as it could get, with no space for anything but electronics.
If this object is indeed the real deal, I’m honestly disappointed. What is up with those seams? Those volume buttons are just unfinished! Oh man, and that 3 layered (sandwich) form factor? You could have seen that almost 10 years ago in mobile phone design, and much better executed! Actually, now that I think about it, I do recall seeing an Mp3 player in China with such a similar form factor.
Anyways, when I first saw those fuzzy images of this prototype on the Internet a few days ago, I called it an expensive fake. The reason was I expected the iPhone 4 to run at least a Unibody back similar to the iPad. Hey, if they can get the Version 2 iPad with 3G to work with the aluminum, why not the iPhone?
I also can’t believe that the industrial design team would give in to a specification and not push for the aluminum back? (Even though that “hamburger pattie” center looks like it was CnC milled) Even if sanity prevailed and the metal back is not going to work, I would imagine they would have created a Unibody solution out of plastic, just like their white Macbooks.
The Unibody has become such a synonymous design identity with Apple products, that it is to me risky that they have discarded it. Especially when this design seems to have regressed their evolution of their design language. I don’t know about you guys, I’m still holding out that this is a fake and hoping for a Unibody iPhone. I’m even toying with the idea that, even though the guts are real, the casing is not. It is just an elaborate functional prototype used to test electronics and software, not a mechanical case part design.
And did I say those seams are ugly?
Check out the full write up at Gizmodo. Thanks for the link @redspec.
Update: Looks like Josh Gruber is thinking along the same lines as I am. And according to Josh, this prototype looks like it was stolen!
Brian Ling (Design Sojourn)
Brian is a multidisciplinary Design Leader with more than 18 years of experience leading strategic design programs that drives successful Brands and Fortune 500 businesses such as GE, Philips, Nakamichi, Flextronics, Ericsson, Hannspree, and HP. His passion is in helping organisations leverage on Design Driven Innovation to make people’s lives better.