Sunday, 29 April 2012

The killer phone architecture

With most users changing their phone every couple of years, it’s exceptional now for a phone design to be in use, or even remembered, ten years after it was designed. Superficially, that can be attributed to the marvellous and rapid evolution in the services that phones deliver. But there are also deeper and less attractive reasons.
Imagine a phone architecture so flexible that it could be manufactured and sold, nearly unchanged, for thirty-two years. An architecture that could adapt, without fundamental alteration, to changes in network architecture, user interface and even to new payment systems. An architecture so physically attractive that even after it had ceased manufacture, it attracted buyers to pay thousands of pounds per phone. Who wouldn’t dream of designing such a killer phone?
Well, the chap who didn’t just dream about it was Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, and who designed Battersea Power Station, Liverpool Cathedral and the K6 red phone box. Last week, BT announced that it was selling off some of its old K6s, for prices starting from £1,950. The K6 design entered service in 1936, providing voice services with local dialling and operator-assisted trunk calls, charged in real time in £/s/d. The K6 saw adaptation to subscriber trunk dialling in 1958, to decimal currency in 1971 and later to charge card operation and internet access. It’s difficult to imagine any of today’s phones having that kind of adaptability.
To be fair, part of the reason for the K6’s longevity was its high cost of replacement. And in the end, the portability of a modern phone left the 750kg K6 behind. But the K6 demonstrated two important architectural virtues. Firstly, that the design was optimized for the spatial, acoustic, security and lighting needs of a human being; not for the technical needs of a particular telecoms service interface. Secondly, that its visual design went far beyond the demands of its functionality, delivering a visually arresting and aesthetically satisfying appearance.
The throwaway phones in the network operators’ shops today are mostly optimized to the latest network services; and all of them are ugly. In fifty years’ time, nobody will want to buy any of them just for their appearance. The K6 wins. The phone company that learns to put humans before features, and architectural aesthetics before either, will have a winner.

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