Upwardly mobile

WITH the emergence of suave equipment styling, a host of new colours and finishes and, above all, the futuristic concepts, design is clearly at the forefront of the telecommunications sector. But there is the suspicion that the market is not heading in a clearly defined direction. The flood of new technology poses the question: are mobiles becoming close to hand- held computers, or are palmtop computers starting to behave like mobile phones?

The explosion of growth in telecommunications was evident at the CeBIT information technology and telecommunication fair held in Hanover last month. Manufacturers are vying with each other as never before to tap the huge consumer appetite for mobile telephony.

It’s worth remembering what all the excitement is about. Mobile phone usage is increasing at a phenomenal rate. According to the Financial Times, Vodafone, Cellnet, Orange and One 2 One gained 2.54 million new subscribers in the three months before Christmas 1998. For 1997 the figure was 750 000. There are now 13 million mobile phone users in the UK.

The advent of wider bandwidth enables mobiles to receive and transmit information. You can buy mobile equipment which works happily in the US or Europe. There are phones which will send e-mails from your laptop and handsets which can browse the Internet. Soon, so-called “third generation” mobile phones will “talk” to other devices, whether personal organisers, personal digital assistants or PCs. We are told that the mobile phone will have enough computing power to be a mobile office in itself.

Exhibits at Hanover attest to the sustained innovation in today’s market. As manufacturers have mastered the technology of LCD displays, keypads and miniaturisation, designers are turning functional items into lifestyle accessories. Business equipment is migrating into consumer markets. It’s become fashionable.

This trend has brought new ergonomic and style-oriented products. Heavy angular mobile handsets favoured in business markets a couple of years ago have given way to smaller, “hand friendly” units. Some suppliers have taken this to the limit – Motorola’s V3688 is matchbox-sized; the Ericsson T28 is only slightly larger.

Whole ranges sport sensuous curves which appeal to sophisticated users way beyond the original target of business users. The accent on design extends to the handset flips. A number of manufacturers introduced new sliding flips, including a button-activated prototype which smoothly slides open to present the key pad; this is sure to assist sales in the future. Mitsubishi Electric’s Trium Cosmo has a flip which completely covers the LCD; a neat analogue clock appears when the phone is on standby.

This presentation is one of the keys to future mobile design. Manufacturers have prided themselves on miniaturising the technology. But once you’ve played the “weight and volume” game, where do you go? There is no particular merit – and no market demand – for ever smaller models. The future must lie with real innovation in the presentation and packaging.

Mobiles are an inseparable part of people’s lifestyles (most of us carry them all the time), so designers are employing personalised © materials and finishes. Use of rubber outside panels by Alcatel, among others, provides a tactile, personal touch. Metal flakes added to polymers for injection-moulding bring an attractive sheen and lustre to handsets which used to be black or grey. This is being achieved by finishes, too. Soft touch paint techniques from Mitsubishi and NEC lend their equipment a pleasant feel: it’s warm to the touch.

In conjunction with toolmakers and polymer suppliers, designers are investigating two- and three-shot mouldings, bringing a more sophisticated look and the opportunity to customise the product. Nokia has cunningly configured handsets to allow front and back to be changed.

Colours have also been used to make mobiles appeal to consumer markets. Drawing inspiration from the fashion and perfume sectors, certain phones are dressed in an attractive metallic finish, targeted at separate male and female users. In a clear push for the youth market, Nokia offers a wide range of interchangeable housing featuring day-glo colours through to snow and skate-style prints with its 3210 model.

But technology has gone beyond miniaturisation. It is embracing higher processing speeds and wider functions. Nokia’s 7110 model is the first mobile phone to allow Internet access. The 9110 Communicator – a Nokia organiser with phone, data e-mail and PC functions – shows the technology available in the business market. However, interest centres on innovative “volume” products – smaller units which offer some kind of link (if not outright compatibility) with other hand-held equipment, rather than a whole raft of new features. Ericsson’s R380 prototype has a touch screen operated through the flip.

Whatever the expectation of “third generation” mobile phones which will operate on a standard platform with personal organisers and digital cameras in several years’ time, the best designs closely reflect consumer needs. They are eye-catching, they appeal to the consumer, but they’re not over-ambitious.

As for common technical standards for mobile phone operation, there seems to be no clear way forward. The European GSM standard is well-established, but will eventually give way to a new service. As a result, manufacturers are still seeking a decisive direction in the consumer market. At CeBIT they were giving free rein to the technology which will feature in future products, without ever winning the visitor over with a definitive product innovation. They seemed to be borrowing ideas from the future to find today’s new trend.

Video technology is the clearest attempt to win over the user. Virtually every key player has concept video mobiles. These can take pictures and transmit “postcards” from the beach, or the party or night club – though not perhaps with the panache of the airborne postcard from the parachutist featured on the Siemens stand.

Ultimately, the most successful products are those which are “humanised” or clearly adapted to people’s lifestyles. The choice of mobile voice and transactional functions is so wide that it might be better to say people’s life stages. Endless communication options are only relevant to a certain point for clubbing teenagers and active 20-somethings. Technology is of no use if the consumer uses only a fraction of it.

Led by designers, manufacturers are becoming smarter in designing the overall styling of products and the key interface – bigger, better screens, user friendly keypads – whether it’s mobiles, hand-held computers or organisers. Compared to the business tool that it started life as, the mobile phone has matured. But only when the latest stage of mobile technology unveiled at CeBIT truly matures and reaches out to (rather than simply overwhelms) the consumer, can the possibilities be fully realised and opened up by its suppliers. n

Hitting the youth market – Nokia’s 3210

Removable covers began with the 5110, but Nokia’s 3210 shows the level of innovation needed to really tap the youth market. Nokia seems to have approached the whole handset from a different angle. The user can change both front and back covers along with the keypad. Because the aerial is integrated into the handset, the design language has been changed; this feels more like a remote control device, but less technical, with a better feel in the pocket.

As a result, the aesthetic is more advanced and more approachable. As well as providing a range of different colours and patterns, the finishes are clever. They’re not straight colours, they have a subtle, anodised feel. The keypads show this innovative spirit, too. Nokia has opted for a hard metallic finish instead of settling for the milky, rather bland silicon moulding. This is a customisable mobile with youthful spirit.

Phones into hand-held computers – Ericsson’s R380

So much has been written about Internet browsing mobile phones that it’s a relief to find a product which is exciting for the consumer, yet shows some restraint. Though it’s only available as a prototype, Ericsson’s R380 mobile is a case in point. It has a beautiful interface, a large touch screen and keypad, with the screen accessible through the flip. Should this be shipped within a few months, this could be a genuinely knockout addition to the mobile offer.

European influence – Mitsubishi Electric’s Trium range

With its appeal to sophisticated European tastes, the Trium range represents a key design development for Mitsubishi Electric. Its development, in conjunction with PSD Associates, has set exciting standards in the interpretation of consumer aspirations.

The PSD team used conceptual designs as the interactive focal point for the research programme itself. Initial concepts were shown to panels of 12 mobile phone users across four EU countries – UK, France, Germany and Italy. By interactively adjusting and refining the designs during the actual research groups, a deeper and more dynamic process was achieved, creating designs with genuine European market appeal. This approach included assessment of favoured textures and colours with suppliers, ensuring that styling innovations could be suitably progressed.

Trium’s form meets the pan-European desire for higher standards in style, ergonomics and presentation. Its texture and finish evoke quality. The colours carry overtones from both male and female perfume and cosmetic products.

The Nokia 9110 is an organiser with phone, data e-mail and PC functions

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