“Individuality: advanced features, precision engineering and couture style in a choice of elegant colors — as individual as you are”. This is the blurb for the new Motorola Raze, one of the new breeds of mobile phone flying off the shelves. Where mobile were once marketed as an high-tech device, a tool packed with ingenious features, the new trend is for fashion phones. The major handset manufacturers are now offering seasonal collections, joint-venturing with well known fashion designers, and emphasizing aesthetic features when marketing their products. Indeed, some companies are scaling back the technical, yet utilitarian features, offering simpler but sleeker phones; form over function. Somewhere along the evolutionary path of the cell phone, the device has reached the point where it is no longer considered a gadget, available only to the privileged few with the money and/or technical savoir faire, but an ordinary piece of equipment not unlike a wristwatch. For handset manufacturers, there is no benefit in trying to “out-tech” the competition. The technology has reached a stasis, cell phones are reliable, small, WAP enabled, contain innumerable clocks and alarms, include high resolution cameras and MP3 players. And excepting some radical departure from the silicon chip, the current technology can expect only slight improvements. For manufacturers the question is how to continue adding value to their product, for consumers it is a question of choice. A report produced by ARC chart offers some insight into this new trend: “For the consumer faced with a range of seemingly identical devices from a technical perspective, the aesthetics of a device can generate an emotional response to which they will ascribe a value and for which they will pay a premium”.
The rise of the fashion phone is inextricably linked with consumer’s desire to differentiate themselves from other consumers. The pursuit of individuality seems to be a priority, at least that is what companies like Motorola believe. The staggering growth in the mobile content industry points to consumer preoccupation with personalizing their mobiles. The catch-phrase, “Make it you own”, is selling ringtones, wallpapers, phone charms and decorative cases, now it’s selling fashion phones. More and more, it seems, what we own defines us. Despite capitalizing on the trend at lightening speed, handset manufacturers aren’t the prophets personalization, the trend towards customized and fashion phones is consumer driven. In China, where mobile phone saturation is high, it is possible to see phones worn on the wrist in handmade lace cases, or covered in stickers of pop stars and smiley faces. In Japan, the omnipresent Hello Kitty dangles from every schoolgirl’s phone. These small aesthetic additions are intended to reveal something about the phone’s owner. A Samsung cell phone emblazoned with an image of Diane von Furstenberg serves a similar purpose. As does the Roberto Cavalli phone, or the Anna Sui phone. “Cell phones have become a ubiquitous accessory– every woman has a mobile phone by her side. I wanted to create one that makes a statement with a signature look”, declares Ms. Sui on her website. Making a statement is expensive, a designer’s name on a phone increases it’s value by several hundred dollars. It is no longer a high-tech tool, it is a designer accessory.
Not surprisingly, engineers like Bill Schweder are wondering who stole their glory. “Engineers do design, and by this we mean the hard and slogging work of pulling together ICs and software and resolving mechanical, thermal, power, display, format, protocol, and packaging issues. Then a celebrity comes along and takes all this hard work, puts on a new case or shell—perhaps studded with crystals or glitter—and takes the bulk of the credit. Once again, engineers do the work and don’t get the appreciation.” Recently, Nokia has undertaken a project with the design firm of Schulz and Webb, to explore the possibilities of personalized phones. The Schulz and Webb blog describes the project as “looking at how personalization of Nokia phones can change their meaning or impact culturally. Large-scale manufacture is inevitably distanced from the very precise social context of use. Once we bring in short-run manufacture, however, the mobile can be more culturally situated.” Nokia have realized, at least, the inevitable paradox of mobile personalization. At the end of the day, the mobile phone in your hand is a mass produced clone.
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