Nokia N9

Dan Hill:

For all the value in a limited product range—the confidence, the ease of inventory, the simplicity—it cannot be the only way, in all cases. Nokia, with the N9, has quickly indicated that other design strategies are possible, and that they can be good.

Other good designs are certainly possible, but good design is no longer confined to merely external industrial design. Good design is intuitive, fades away, and lets us get to what we want. Good design is both external and internal. Good design reduces unnecessary manufacturing steps, reduces the number of components, reduces failure rates. Good design is systematic and embraces hardware, software, the complete experience. Apple’s way is certainly not the only way for everything, but it is the most effective method today in transforming fantastic ideas into beautifully crafted devices with an impossibly affordable price that millions upon millions buy.

In this one simple move of rejecting smoothness in the connection between glass and body, and in underscoring this by an interface gesture—the ‘swipe’ from this edge—Nokia have elided physical and digital gestures to suggest a new range of possibilities in handset design. The N9 has thus got closer than any other mainstream phone in realising the value in “the polyphony of the senses”, as Bachelard wrote. Combined with many of the new directions in Meego’s interaction design and architecture, the N9 sketches some alternative trajectories for the mobile phone.

The “edge swipe” does seem unique. But I feel this bulge, this visual separation of display and body is a mere blip, an anomaly, in the smartphone design zeitgeist, which I think is rapidly headed down a different path toward a different future. My guess is most design, engineering, and manufacturing efforts will be aligned to making the display be a more prominent part, more than it already is, of our smartphone experience. I imagine a smartphone that’s 90% display. I’m imagining this future because I want to carry less—less physical material. But I think many others would like a similar future. Imagine a display with an order of magnitude faster electron mobility than LTPS allowing for a significant portion of electronics to be integrated directly into the glass. All the chips you see when iFixit tears apart a smartphone, they wouldn’t be there anymore; they’d be on the glass itself. A remarkably thin sheet of durable, flexible, transparent glass. Also embedded into the glass would be photo sensors and solar cells. No more camera sub-systems with a backside illuminated image sensor coupled with a multi-lens system; the display itself, with photo sensor embedded pixels, will be the viewfinder, the lens, the camera. Embedded solar cells along with some type of piezo-kinetic recharging system would make this future smartphone last all day without needing hefty, heavy batteries. Other technologies complete the picture: multitouch input, a Siri-like digital concierge, a secure biometric-connected digital ID, NFC-based wallet, etc. This is what I want: A smartphone future where the display is dominant, a display that is the body.