Screens just became non-rectangular.

How the selfie economy is changing mobile form factors.


September 19, 2017


Steve Berry

Screens just became non-rectangular.

As any other technologist, I watched the Apple keynote live during the work day as the privileged consumer I am. The iPhone X and wireless charging were the main headlines of the day, and they were great. I believe there was one item most people overlooked. Apple just changed the mobile device paradigm - screens don’t have to be rectangular.

This is the first mass-appeal device that features rounded corners at every corner. There is a little notch at the top of the screen for the speaker and imagery sensors. This notch, packed full of sensors, makes the OLED display an irregular shape. This irregularity is going to make a user interface design for the iPhone X very interesting (read: nightmare) in the short term.

The top of the phone is the most valuable real estate for any application, UI, or experience. How are designers going to manage this immense disruption to their most valuable real estate? If you look at the screenshots, the top of the UI is not well resolved yet. It feels… unfinished. The time and status indicator designs are much less successful compared to every other Apple iOS design. So what is happening?

Think back to the first iPad. There was a 3/4” black bezel that wrapped around the screen. While there were technologic limitations of edge to edge screen design at the time, one of the benefits of the bezel is improved ergonomics. People felt more comfortable being able to hold the bezel, knowing they were not going to fire off any touch events on the OS. That was a great approach to introduce customers to a tablet form factor, but it quickly wore off. “Why can’t the screen go all the way to the edge?” asked every customer ever. Consumers keep demanding larger screens, technology keeps advancing, and the bezel keeps eroding away. Companies followed the money, and the money was in the largest displays in the smallest package.

The iPhone X is precisely that. They removed their ubiquitous home button and replaced it with a reasonable, but not overly simple slide up interaction. A bold tradeoff - yet that is how valuable screen size is becoming. There is just no other part of the iPhone that is as valuable as screen size, and the iPhone X is proof of that. That makes the notch at the top of the iPhone X that much more interesting. If screen size drives the most value to the customer, a little notch at the top of the screen must be insanely valuable.

The selfie economy zeitgeist is stimulating this disruption. Apple is investing in the fact that everyone, from teens to my own mother, is using their devices to capture their interaction with the world. A consumer makes better an association with the device when it produces better selfies. The device becomes an enhanced digital extension of yourself. You can become an animated unicorn, a talking emoticon, a better looking “you” than before. This strengthens the personal connection between user and device, blurring the line. Unlocking your phone by only picking it up and having it scan your face instead of typing in a passcode only deepens the integration between your physical self and digital self.

The growing popularity of the selfie economy is why Snap rushed to IPO. Why Instagram quickly rolled out stories. And why now Apple is investing in the selfie experience while disregarding traditional hardware design paradigms.

However, this experimental design conflicts with Apples current UI. The new change has lead iOS to look dated, not quite fitting the new organic device shape. This means the entire UI system based on rectangular boxes, arrows, and lines are becoming obsolete.

We are becoming more integrated with our phones. A device can recognize when your attention is on it and unlock accordingly. No tap needed. The natural ergonomics of holding a round device, screen to the edges, feels better than the bezel-framed rectangular interface. The technologic limitations of producing compact devices are starting to fall down.

I believe the iPhone X is an experimental arm, of sorts, looking to push new interfaces and interactions. With the new iPhone priced higher than the base model, privileged tech people are going to be the test bed for an increasingly sophisticated handheld device. These early adopters trust the brand, support the products, and are more willing to try new concepts.

Each iteration of the leading iPhone X branch will find successes and failures, but since only early adopters will buy the phone, there will be fewer complaints. All the successes will trickle down to their main product line.

Non-rectangular screens will be one of those successes. This integration and personal connection with consumers lives will be the emotional driver for purchases. Needless to say, I’m excited to see what shapes will come forth over the years and if the Apple watch will get a smart revamp as well.

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