Is the iPhone 5 ugly?

Apple might have sold over five million iPhone 5s in three days but does its emphasis on function over form mark a distinct departure from Steve Jobs' design legacy?

Recently, 62 per cent of people responding to a poll run by Business Insider thought the iPhone 5 ugly. Whilst I wouldn’t necessarily go that far, the design is visually jarring. One possible reason for this is that the ratio of its height to width has deviated even further than the previous model (and almost any smartphone on the market) from what is called the “golden rectangle”. The golden rectangle is one in which the length of the longest side divided by the shortest side is approximately 1.618. The exact number is called the golden ratio, and it is a solution to the equation x2 – x – 1 = 0.

This proportion turns up everywhere in design, architecture and nature. So frequent is its appearance that the early mathematician Luca Pacioli declared it a “divine proportion”. It is commonly seen in the work of Leonardo Da Vinci and numerous other artists.

It also turns out that when tested on consumers, there is a preference for shapes that conform to the golden ratio. Other studies have shown that the preferences actually occur over a range from about 1.5 to 1.7.

When we look at the shapes of the current batch of smartphones, we get some very interesting results

Phone

Height

Width

Ratio

iPhone 5

123.80

58.6

2.11

HTC 8X

132.35

66.2

2.00

iPhone 4

115.20

58.6

1.97

Galaxy S3

136.60

70.6

1.93

Galaxy S2

125.30

66.1

1.90

Nokia 920

130.00

70.8

1.84

Nokia 820

123.80

68.5

1.81

The table shows the ratios of height to width of a number of phones. None of them are particularly close to the golden ratio but the iPhone 5 has the highest ratio by far.  By comparison, the iPod classic has a ratio of 1.675, very close to the golden ratio. Its shape has stayed largely unchanged since its initial launch.

It is interesting that in this context, Apple has released an ad that extols the virtue of the long and thin screen by claiming that you can reach all of the screen with your thumb. So, perhaps they are emphasising that function trumps form in this case. Of course, this is possible even with the Galaxy S3 depending on how you hold the phone.

Given the passion with which Steve Jobs paid attention to design, it is hard to believe that the iPhone 5 would have been released in this form if he had still been CEO. The other aspect of the design he probably wouldn’t have approved would have been the metal back casing which has been shown to be particularly prone to scratching. When the first iPhone was being designed, Jobs allegedly screamed at the engineers because the plastic of the phone would scratch from keys in pockets. They have apparently forgotten this with the new design.

The bizarre thing about this is that the screen really adds little benefit but, like the change in adapter, it has forced developers to now create applications that need to cater for different form factors. This in turn has probably handed Google a welcome boost.

A common argument for not developing on Android was that it was harder because of the different form factors. With the iPhone, you just needed to deal with one size. Even the change with the retina screen of the iPhone 4S was handled in such a way that application developers could choose to ignore it. With the shape of the iPhone 5, this becomes harder and once you have developed your application for 2 sizes, adding more becomes relatively straightforward. One barrier to developing for Android has just disappeared.

Although 62 per cent of those polled by Business Insider stated that the iPhone 5 was ugly, 38 per cent in the poll disagreed. Media reviewers have declared the iPhone 5’s design beautiful. Initial online sales have broken records although the fact that iPhone 5s are readily available still in many locations in Australia points to Apple either having sorted out its supply for the launch or a waning of interest after the initial launch.

With the possibility that Apple will follow the lead of Google and Amazon and release a 7” version of the iPad, it is difficult to see where future changes for the iPhone will take it. Given that Apple seems to be responding to its perception of what the market wants, this would suggest even larger screens, perhaps at least making the proportions of the iPhone return to a more aesthetically pleasing form?

David Glance is a Director at the Centre for Software Practice at The University of Western Australia

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