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When Will Today’s Smartphones Get Their “RAZR Moment?”

by Michael Fisher on

In case you missed it yesterday, a photo has surfaced which purports to be an actual product image of the highly anticipated Galaxy S IV, Samsung’s presumed 2013 Android flagship. The image has generated the predictable buzz, with much speculation about its authenticity cris-crossing cyberspace.

Yesterday afternoon, I was asked on Twitter whether I thought the photo was real. My response -”if it is, I’m bored already”- was a quick off-the-cuff reply, but as the day wore on, I realized just how true it was. Aesthetically speaking, the pictured device is about as dull a smartphone as I can imagine. Whether it’s an authentic leak or not is kind of irrelevant; it’s convincing enough to turn a lot of heads, because it’s a pretty close approximation of what we’ve come to expect in a high-end smartphone in 2013. And that’s sad.

Just so you don’t have to click away, take a gander at this thing. And try not to doze off.

Yes, yes, I know: it’s just a front-side shot, and we have no idea whether it masks some impressive new textured back or some incredible new side rails, or … I don’t know, denim inserts on the battery cover or something. But be honest: assuming this is an accurate portrayal of the device’s face, do you really expect anything groundbreaking from its backside?

We’ve talked about the boring-old-slab problem with modern smartphones over and over. We’ve touched on it in videos, on the Pocketnow Weekly podcast, and in more editorials than I can count. And I’ll readily admit to being the prime offender. Off the top of my head, here’s five articles where I’ve railed against today’s homogenized landscape of dull monolithic devices:

I Really Miss Flip Phones

Your White Phone is Cool. Enjoy it While it Lasts.

You Own This Phone Too? Well, Now I Hate It.

Where Have All The Small Phones Gone?

Why I’m Buying the Nokia Lumia 920 Instead of the iPhone 5

So yeah, I whine a lot. And to be sure, the smartphone landscape isn’t entirely devoid of excitement (or else I’d find another job). In the years since the iPhone popularized the “minimalistic monolith” form factor, many keyboardless smartphones have come along with bold designs in an attempt to shake up the status quo. Devices like the pillowy¬†HTC Evo 4G and the slim LG BL40, and even the “rounded pebble” of the Galaxy S III.

… not to mention even “pebblier” devices among the ranks of the dearly departed.

But not one of these examples has done for smartphones what the original RAZR did for feature-phones.

The first Motorola RAZR launched into a sea of sameness: in 2004, the North American landscape was dominated by a flood of silver flip phones, with manufacturers like Samsung, LG, and Sanyo differentiating on features, but not much in the way of aesthetic design. The RAZR turned that stagnant, puffy, plastic world completely on its head, blowing minds left and right with a frame made of aircraft aluminum that came in at under 14mm thick – a stunning accomplishment in those days. I remember thinking, during my first real-world RAZR sighting, that the device looked impossibly thin held up against the ear, like a folded piece of cardboard. That, coupled with the space-age metal-membrane keypad with its¬†electroluminescent backlighting, complimentary back and front speaker grilles, and ostentatious “chin,” made the phone impossible to ignore. It was profoundly impressive, unlike anything on the market. It was groundbreaking. For the first time, a phone was sexy.

Rated PG-13 for lewd and lascivious content.

Where, then, is the RAZR for the smartphone world?

You’ll cite numerous examples of well-designed devices in response, augmenting my earlier examples with new suggestions of your own. The new RAZR smartphones will -rightfully- be called out. Sony will no doubt be well-represented in the replies, as well as HTC and Nokia, with their colorful polycarbonate and curved display glass. Maybe you’ll call my attention to smartphones I never knew existed, and I’ll enthusiastically agree that they are indeed beautiful.

But that’s just the thing: phones that I (or the vast majority of the buying public) don’t know about or can’t remember don’t count. When the RAZR came along, it was impossible to ignore. It was very much the iPhone of dumbphones. Everyone wanted one – and eventually, due to a tactical blunder by Motorola, the price dropped low enough for everyone to have one. The point is, even non-geeks knew what a “RAZR-phone” was. It changed the market so completely that soon it was difficult to find a high-end flip that wasn’t a RAZR clone.

In retrospect, ya’ll could’ve been a bit more subtle. Looking at you here, Sanyo & Samsung.

I admire the effort that some big manufacturers are making to bring variety to today’s slab-phone world. I love what Motorola’s doing with Kevlar microweave, what LG’s up to with its subtle patterned backplates, and even, to an extent, Samsung’s work with fake metal battery doors. And yes, the iPhone continues to impress in terms of its beautifully crafted hardware year after year.

But none of this has brought the awe, the wonder, the wow-factor that Motorola did back in 2005. The smartphone world is still very much in need of a category-rattling “RAZR moment” of its own. Whether it comes from one of the big players, or a small dream factory like Noit, I look forward to being blown away by its arrival. And I hope it comes soon.

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