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!

  • Alex

    June 21, 2010 at 11:39 pm Reply

    Bravo for technical change, but finally I prefered iPhone 3’s design

  • Adrian3

    June 6, 2010 at 2:01 pm Reply

    Being someone who likes the direction of this new design, I started posting a response, but it got really long really quick. So I posted it on my blog. In short, pretty much everything people are complaining about are actually pretty practical improvements in my opinion. Here’s the post address:

  • DT

    April 21, 2010 at 6:00 pm Reply

    @Michael: Apparently the white Mac books are milled out of a PC block. Indeed that is why I have been saying the way they solved the RF problem on the iPad should not hinder the same construction in the iPhone.

  • Michael

    April 21, 2010 at 2:10 pm Reply

    I am a phone designer and want to understand the use of the word ‘unibody’. To me, a ‘unibody’ design is milled out from an aluminium block but why is a plastic version called a ‘unibody’ as well? Isn’t it just a standard ‘back cover’? Did the word ‘unibody’ become a marketing gimmick that they use or is the “unibody Macbooks” really milled out from a block of PC or ABS?
    It is true that the Unibody design has become a design language in some of Apple’s product but I think that this have been giving them trouble and limitations, thus the use of a plastic back cover seen in the current iphones. RF and metal are not friends and an Industrial Designer cannot escape and pass this point. That is why, when RF engineers look at the ipad construction, they will glee in delight at the clever way apple did it.
    1st generation iphone – ugly break with a small black color plastic piece at the back
    Current iphone – Back cover made of plastic
    Ipad – brilliant use of the apple logo to place wifi antenna
    Ipad 3G – black piece break at the top to possibly place the 3G antenna
    I do not think that there is a possibility of a unibody iphone. Maybe just the standard back cover. Maybe a nice finishing that makes it ceramic like or glass like. Unless an ID can come up with the brilliance of the Ipad, any other part break on such a small back cover on a phone will just look really ugly.

  • Jasper

    April 21, 2010 at 2:20 am Reply

    maybe its just a very clever move to get some feedback since that thing is all over the news…

  • DK

    April 20, 2010 at 1:41 pm Reply

    I do think the seams at the side will be gone in the final version.

  • Chris

    April 20, 2010 at 4:45 am Reply

    I hope to everything good in design, that you are right and this is indeed either a fake or just a prototype for testing.

  • Chris

    April 20, 2010 at 4:42 am Reply

    This is awful. In my opinion Apple just took one step back as far as design is concerned. A big step.

  • Cameron

    April 20, 2010 at 2:08 am Reply

    I don’t like it. Definitely more generic, although more refined that identical looking stuff. I really miss the back surface.

  • Alex Androski

    April 20, 2010 at 1:23 am Reply

    I’ve been seeing reports that, rather than black plastic, the new backing is either glass or a ceramic finished to look and feel like glass. Does that change your opinion on the unibody-vs-separate-backing issue?

Post a Comment