Our high-tech toys and tools: Uninspiring by design

May 23, 2012

Last week I was looking at a pile of smartphones I’d recently been given to review. The devices were virtually indistinguishable from one another.

Slab after slab, no keyboards, no color. Just black blocks with shiny touch screens, maybe a few buttons dotted along the side. Some had fake metal rings that wrapped around the body of the phone, a kind of mimic of the iPhone’s metal antenna. Some went for a matte finish instead of high gloss. All were familiar, and all were uninspired.

Turning them over was no better. Some brandished HTC logos, some Motorola, some Samsung, some LG. The list is long, but my attention span with these lookalikes is becoming shorter by the minute.

Looking at the latest crop of laptops (in particular, models based on Intel’s “Ultrabook” chipset), the trend is the same. One machine after another trying to ape the MacBook Pro or MacBook Air. Aluminum casing? Check. Tapered edge? Check. Black, “chicklet” keyboard? Check. So little to differentiate the systems beyond specs and the odd placement of a USB port or trackpad.

HP released a laptop called the Envy, which was nearly a shot-for-shot remake of the MacBook Pro. Envious? Yes, that was obvious.

It’s as if design innovation has all but stopped in the world of technology. It’s so rare to see something truly original that when an odd looking device does pop up, people in the industry almost bristle. As if sameness were a desirable quality. As if looking like the rest of the bunch gave you some advantage, some “in.”

There are a few rays of light in the technology landscape, however. Despite the fact that Windows Phone has yet to really take off, Nokia made big design strides with the introduction of the Lumia 900 — using a solid, molded polycarbonate shell instead of the metal or plastic you see on most devices, and giving users color options like a striking cyan.

Nikon also seems to be at least trying with products like its J1 camera. While the device itself is not a particularly good shooter, the design seems to be reaching for something more than the status quo. The sleek, clean, interchangeable-lens camera looks like something from the future — something from our dreams of what technology would look like in the 2000s.

Elsewhere, companies such as Jawbone have seemed to pay particular attention to the physical presence of their devices. The company had designer Yves Behar (one of the few notable names in the technology design space) create its iconic Bluetooth speaker, the Jambox, as well as the flawed-but-beautiful fitness bracelet, the UP.

On a smaller scale, pioneers like the Swedish instrument-maker Teenage Engineering have painstakingly merged technology and art into a single device, a standalone synthesizer called the OP-1, which is as gorgeous to look at as it is fun to play with.

But on the larger scale — in the larger world — our electronics makers seem to have given up when it comes to innovative design. Yes, Apple and Jony Ive are still cranking out some of the most beautiful technology ever produced, but even Apple looks a little familiar these days. And where is the competition? Where is the company that will go toe-to-toe with the best in the business . . . and beat them?

Sadly, that competition is in short supply these days, and I think it’s a problem for our industry. Frankly, it’s a problem for our world.

You may not put stock in physical design — in beauty — but a care for the way these products are designed and built has repercussions beyond just the look and feel of a device. Apple has had to rework and rethink the guts of its products to match ambitious designs, driving down part sizes, creating new manufacturing methods and dreaming up all kinds of new ways to do old things.

That’s innovation, in both design and technology — and it’s important to moving the industry forward.

The truth is, good design costs money, and taking risks is, well . . . risky. Most of the infrastructure that’s been built around technology manufacturing is concerned with one thing alone: keeping the bottom line as low as possible. That might get you good margins, but it won’t often get you good design.

As long as a single company, Apple, is willing to take risks, that single company will continue leading the way in product design. And that’s too bad, because I don’t necessarily think that Apple will always have the best idea, or the most original.

I think it’s time for this industry to wake up to design. To wake up to beauty in form and function. I think it’s time that technology companies started taking a long, hard look at what they’re putting out into the world. Hopefully, they’ll start to realize that competition takes more than “me too.”

Sometimes, it takes “me first.”

Joshua Topolsky is the founding editor in chief of the Verge (www.theverge.com), a technology news Web site. For previous columns, go to postbusiness.com.

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