Why Does Everything Look Like An iPhone?

18th March 2024
4 min read

Phone wallpaper by Pawel Czerwinski. Model and render by me.

It's basically a meme at this point; copying Apple's product design.

Samsung continues to firmly hold up it's reputation for mimicking the iPhone, even with the latest Galaxy S24. I often get asked if my Nothing Phone(1) is an iPhone too.

But wannabes blindly copying the market leader is not nearly as true as some would like to believe.

For 17 straight years of annual updates, the design trajectory of smartphones is not nearly as scandalous. On the contrary, it's quite prosaic, and has far less to do with the Industrial Design of the phones than what might be obvious.

So why then does everything look like an iPhone?

Content Maximalism

A big factor is and has always been content.

Smartphones, with their large screens and flexible touch input basically opened the floodgates for content of all kinds to emerge on handheld devices. Apps like Fruit Ninja could never have been possible before the smartphone as we know it today (and not after yet either).

With the opening of the App Store and Android Market, app developers suddenly had new opportunities for monetisation of their work, and were (mostly) limited only by their imagination. As Windows Phone later discovered, developers make a robust ecosystem. With a robust ecosystem comes consumers. With consumers comes more developers.

An explosion of content, and Apple and Google both pushed hard to ensure we as smartphone users consumed as much as possible. They did, after all, take nearly one third of all revenue.

As one of the few companies with both hardware (iPhone) and an app store (App Store), Apple lead the charge on devices-as-a-vehicle for content consumption.

Unlike Apple however, other smartphone makers couldn't sell the content, so they at least took to selling access to the content. Watch videos bigger, in more detail. Play games harder, for longer. All while still fitting in the pocket of your skinny jeans.

In the pursuit of market share, this triggered a technological arms race amongst Android smartphone makers. Android phones pioneered larger screens, thinner chassis, smaller bezels, bigger batteries, powerful processors. Even giant and multiple cameras.

The arms race still rages, but even budget phones are so powerful now that few people really care anymore what's inside their phones. Or how small the bezels are, or how many pixels it has. We found a limit too on how thin phones could get and since then the 3rd dimension has rebounded to something more practical.

As the saying goes; "Racing improves the breed", and competition was nowhere more fierce than in the smartphone space in the early 2010s. It was a wild time for smartphone design.

All in the name of an improved content experience.

Design Minimalism

Bigger screens, smaller bezels, flatter chassis. When the technological numbers games took over most of the smartphone as a percentage of surface area, there's only so much room left for design.

In those halcyon days of smartphones many phone makers (except Apple) were trying all kinds of wacky designs to figure out what worked. 3D phones, tough phones, projector phones, twin-screen phones, the list was long. Wherever there was a little bit of market share to be had.

We laugh at these attempts now (and sometimes then), but their wherewithal to give it a crack should be admired. These features were things you could apply design to. Tactility, texture, contrast, fun things that make life interesting.

Before the minimalist design language had fully converged.

More than ten years on, and the fundamental smartphone system architecture has well and truly been cemented. Smartphone makers know what works and what consumers expect. An understanding has been reached between what smartphone makers could, and what smartphone makers should.

The minimalist design aesthetic is also driven by minimalist costs. The less physical features you need to include in a smartphone, the lest parts you need to buy. When you're buying millions of parts, as Apple (and Samsung) does, every cent of cost saving counts*.

* Here's a riddle for you. Do you think the sides of the iPhone are flat because they look cool? Or because they're cheaper to machine?

Queue the death of the headphone jack. The home button. The speaker grills (and great front-facing speakers).

When you start to remove physical features off the phones, you start to lose features you can apply design to. Smartphone design in the 2020s has just become new riffs on the same old song. Change up the colour a bit, maybe the material too if the budget allows. Apple's USP this year was that their phones included a thin film of titanium on them.

With that, the smartphone language has slowly refined in time. I talked about the rise and rise of the obround the other week. Smartphone design has quite metaphorically been like the river stone. Each iteration the corners get a little bit rounder, a little bit smoother. Until there's no corners left to remove.

Have you noticed that reviewers and advertisements alike only show the backs of the phones? It's because there's literally nothing else to show.

Why The iPhone?

The answer is pretty simple.

The iPhone is the most sold phone in the world. And Apple as a company occupies (for good and bad) holds an enormous percentage of mindshare.

They lead the charge on digital content through the App Store.

They had "courage" to min-max the design (despite poorer usability).

Everything looks like an iPhone, because an iPhone doesn't look like anything.

Tagged: design · minimalism · technology

ⓒ Lincoln Black 2024

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