Yesterday I held the new HTC Hero next to my iPhone. Not only the new Android handset has a surprisingly cool design—straight out of JJ Abrams' Star Trek or Kubrick's 2001—but it kicks the iPhone's plastic ass.
Simply put, the Teflon-coated back just feels and looks a lot better than the iPhone's—now crappy looking, I admit—plastic back. The Hero's polytetrafluoroethylene—the technical name for DuPont's Teflon—coating feels perfect in your hand. It doesn't appear to get any skin oil at all. No greasy fingerprints, just a perfect matte finish no matter how much I touched it.
It feels and looks like a white thermal tile out of NASA's shuttle.
The iPhone's plastic finish, on the other side, is a fingerprint magnet that looks as cheap as any Chinese knockoff after holding it for a few seconds. The Hero wins hands down on appearance, even while its front is too complicated for my taste. For a company like Apple—which takes such pride in their design and manufacturing—this is bad. For a consumer like me, this sucks.
"They are getting so boring"
Once upon a time Apple used to be innovators in the use of new materials. Those were the times in which they experimented with the iMacs and PowerMacs, which finished with the arrival of aluminum. Today, apart from the unibody manufacturing—which is just a form of aluminum manufacturing, a material that has been used forever in consumer products—their use of groundbreaking materials has stagnated.
I'm not the only one saying this. About a month ago Matt Buchanan and I asked the top executive of one of the most important industrial design firms in the world about his thoughts on Apple's design. After seing Objectified—and watching a legend like Dieter Rams glorifying Apple as the only consumer electronics company that counts when it comes to industrial design—I was expecting an ode to Jon Ive and his team. Instead, he replied:
They are great, but we [him and his colleagues in the industrial design world] think they are getting so boring. I mean, don't get me wrong, they got the use of aluminum perfected now... but what happened with the excitement that they used to generate with new materials? We all expect a lot more from Apple.
He is right. Their use of plastics in the iMac spread to every single consumer appliance out there. And Kara Johnson, materials expert from IDEO believes it'll be going out of style any day now (Maybe yesterday.) But now, even aluminum is the new beige. (Even if some experts believe there are few alternatives, there are a few.)
So yes, Apple should use new materials. Not for the sake of it, of course. They should use whatever materials fit the product technical needs. And for me, one of these needs as a consumer is that the product should look great at all times, and not just look great in the box or behind a store glass.
The need for new materials
The iPhone has this problem. It looks like crap with little use. They have tried to fix part of it with the oleophobic coating on the front glass—something that the HTC Hero also has—but the overall effect keeps being the same: Its back still looks cheap after some time.
One thing to note
For this reason we were all hoping for a matte back in the iPhone 3GS, but apparently Apple decided not to release it for one reason or the other.
Related reading: What Beautiful Gadgets Will Be Made Of