Recently I’ve found myself sometimes dwelling on an unlikely technological nostalgia, thinking of things past and what might have been. Make no mistake: this isn’t the common nostalgia of remembering what was a great product for its time, nor that of longing for features left out of subsequent models to cut costs. Instead, it’s a nostalgia for a product that never was — or rather, that never was very good.
Flashback to the days of yore: specifically, 2004. Motorola was trying (and failing) to make a good name for itself in the smartphone space. In the course of this endeavor, it announced two new Windows Smartphones, and one Pocket PC phone, the latter being the Motorola MPx.
If you’ve never heard of the MPx, there’s a simple reason for that. After much delay in its development, and some really bad specs, when it finally hit the market it bombed so hugely that Motorola was nearly charged with violating the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.
Not that you can find any fault with the negative assessment that the MPx got. Even for its time it was big, it was awkward, and its specifications were rather pathetic. But what makes the MPx notable is not any of that, but its design. It was a dual-flip device. Thanks to an odd hinging arrangement, you could open it either in a laptop-style landscape mode, which had a thumb keyboard below the screen, or in a portrait flip-phone orientation, where the keys reoriented to provide a numeric pad.
There’s little reason that I or anyone else would still want to use the MPx. But though the device itself went down in flames, the design didn’t deserve to, because it offered something fairly unique.
See, I’m a man torn between two impulses. On one hand, I’ve got my Samsung BlackJack II, possessor of the QWERTY keyboard that I find so convenient for entering text. On the other is my steadfastly loyal Cingular 3125, with the simple and robust clamshell design that I crave. Herein lies the choice I’m obliged to make: form or function, clamshell or keyboard.
Like any rational person, I naturally choose function, since actually getting things done is more important than the looks of the device or the protection of the buttons. But that doesn’t change the fact that I still want the best of both worlds, something akin to a smarter, sexier 2008 version of the MPx.
Close But Not Quite
Ironically, there is a near-perfect example of my heart’s desire, but it’s only to be found in the world of featurephones. The Samsung SCH-u740 features a near perfect clamshell dual-use design, supplying both keyboard and numberpad in a single unit. Put the hinge on the other side, and give it Windows Mobile 6.1, and I’d even be willing to switch to Verizon for it.
If you’re familiar with my loudly expressed opinion of Verizon, you know that that’s a pretty stunning statement.
Let’s Break Out of the Mold
It’s not really about one device, or even one design, of course. It’s about innovation. Yes, we’ve got some very good device designs available right now — in fact, even without the flip my BlackJack is a stellar smartphone. But the variety of designs available is pretty small, and many manufacturers don’t seem to be doing much about that.
Sure, your yet-another-QWERTYbar-clone smartphone may be profitable, but sooner or later somebody’s going to take the risk of making something more innovative, and then they’re going to eat your lunch. Witness the iPhone’s success — immediately followed by a massive tide of iPhone clones, showing that no, manufacturers really can’t have an original thought.
Clamshells, dual flips, dual sliders, flip touchscreens… there’s a lot of room out there for exotic or interesting designs, if anyone wants to bother. They may not all survive, but hey, neither will your generic phone-slabs.