By Jeremy Wagstaff/Reuters
In a pre-iPhone age, mobile phones came in all shapes and sizes. Remember the clamshell, candy bar, swivel, backflip, slider, dual-slider, lipstick, and, of course, the taco? Nowadays, most phones have a touch screen, rows of icons and are rectangular.
In short, they all look a lot like the iPhone.
Now, in the wake of the Apple Inc vs Samsung Electronics trial, where the US firm won what the South Koreans scathingly called a "monopoly over rectangles with rounded corners," the fear is that an era of rapid and exciting innovation in mobile design is over. The iPhone has won the day and all those whose handsets use Google's Android operating system, the argument goes, will either give up or tread carefully for fear of litigation.
But others argue the opposite.
Paul Pugh, creative vice president at frog, a San Francisco-based design company owned by India's Aricent Group, believes companies may now unshackle their designers to come up with genre-busting form factors and user interfaces that breathe fresh life into the industry.
"We don't know yet how far the impacts are going to go from here," says Pugh. "I do hope it's an inspiration moment for the Android platform and the manufacturers to put their bets on innovation ... to come with great user experience based on users' needs, and not stagnate based on the patents crippling them."
Frog knows how hard this is to bring to market. Take the SmartPad; a prototype Android phone the company unveiled last year that at first glance looked, in the words of one reviewer on the technology website Engadget, like "yet another plain smartphone - dark, nondescript, and maybe a little like an iPhone 4 that's had its right-most extent sliced off."
Flip open the two layers, however, and you had a phone with twice the normal screen size. "Suddenly it's a little tablet, two screens forming a 6-inch slate," the Engadget reviewer wrote.
The prototype, which belonged to Imerj, part of Singapore-listed contract manufacturer Flextronics International , intrigued: The Engadget article attracted more than 400 comments. It wasn't a wholly new concept, but the design was impressive, including the software, which included apps that made the most of the extra screen. Imerj promised a kit for software developers, and a team worked on a slew of apps that made use of the innovative dual screen. They dreamed big: to take on Research in Motion's BlackBerry.
"We had an idea that the smartphone was going to be the primary computing platform for most people going forward," recalled Brett Faulk, then Imerj's vice president of marketing. "However, it has two challenges: small screen and small keyboard. So the concept was to create a product that scales as my productivity needs increase."
After a few months, however, everything went quiet. Imerj's Twitter account went dead, as did its website. Both are now offline. Faulk and others left the company. Flextronics declined to comment, as did frog's Pugh.
A former member of the Imerj team said the project was deliberately aimed at a niche far from Apple's consumer-driven world, but that was part of the reason for its demise.
Building a device and the suite of office applications to go with it required at least five years gestation, an investment the parent company in the end couldn't make. "We were very ahead," said the person, who was not authorized to speak about the project and declined to be identified. "We were very sad to see innovation being pushed aside."