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 material arse. Literally.
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 apparent fingerprints, no shining, 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. Very bad.
"They are getting so boring"
Once upon a time Apple used to break new ground in the use of plastic materials. Those were the times in which they experimented with the iMacs and PowerMacs. But apart from the unibody manufacturing—which is just a form of aluminium manufacturing, a material that has been used forever in consumer products—their materials innovation is 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 seeing Objectified—and watching Dieter Rams saying that Apple is the only consumer electronics company that counts when it comes to industrial design—I was expecting an ode to Jon Ive. Instead, he replied:
They are great, but we all think they are getting so boring. I mean, don't get me wrong, they got the use of aluminium perfected now... but what happened with the excitement that they used to generate with new materials? We all [him and his colleagues in the industrial design world]expect a lot more from Apple.
He is right. But not because Apple should use new materials for the sake of it. That won't be right, of course: They should use whatever materials fit the product technical needs. But to me, one of these needs as a consumer is that the product should look good at all times, and not just look good in the box or behind a glass.
The need for new materials
The iPhone has this problem. They have tried to fix part of it with the oleophobic coating on the front part—something that the HTC Hero also has—but the overall effect keeps being the same: Its back still looks cheap until some time.
We were all hoping for a matte back in the iPhone 3GS, but apparently Apple decided not to release for one reason or the other. I don't know and I don't care. What I do care about is that, after playing with the Hero, my iPhone feels like crap. And I don't even like Android.