Here’s a prediction: One day your smartphone will be an unbreakable sheet of solid glass with no sockets, jacks or visible moving parts.
That’s always been Apple’s ambition. “For more than a decade, our intention has been to create an iPhone that’s all display,” said Apple Chief Design Officer Jony Ive at the iPhone X launch last year. “A physical object that disappears into the experience.”
That certainly sounds good, especially if you care about smartphone design. But the problem with phones is that you need to interact with them, and that means some elements have to be included on the front of the device. That’s why Apple couldn’t get rid of every front-mounted component, even for it’s top-of-the-line iPhone X. And so Ive (who has been designing mobile phones since at least 1990) chose to combine those front-facing elements within a small area at the top of the all-new OLED display.
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Thus — in true form-follows-function style — was born “The Notch.”
The notch holds an array of cutting-edge camera lenses and sensors: there’s an infrared camera, flood illuminator, proximity sensor, ambient light sensor, speaker, microphone, camera sensor, and dot projector. These are all essential to enable Apple’s secure Face ID authorization system and TrueDepth camera.
Apple’s decision to include a notch, rather than leaving the top of the display all black, marks a key transition point for a smartphone industry as it grapples with the challenge of manufacturing edge-to-edge smartphones that aren’t compromised in terms of usability. At present, the notch is, “A necessary element of the design and display, due to the current sensor and display technology available today,” as Anshel Sag at Moor Insights and Strategy terms it.
Follow the leader
The notch at the top of the iPhone X was reviled by competitors when it was first introduced, (though Essential tried something similar just before Apple’s device arrived last fall). Competitors and critics hated the missing chunk between the two ears (or horns) of the device.
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Some hated it so much, they decided to put notches inside their own products, too.
Here are just some of the many notched Android smartphones introduced so far, many of them at Mobile World Congress in February: Blackview, OnePlus, Asus Zenfone 5, Huawei P20, LG G7, Wiko View 2 Pro, Leagoo S9, Oukitel U18, Ulefone T2 Pro, Ulefone X, Doogee V, Noa H10, iLA X, Otot V5801, Oppo A3, Vernee M7, Nokia X6, ZTE.
The argument that the notch was necessary because manufacturers are attempting to create an all glass front on their smartphone is somewhat subverted by the facts related to these non-Apple notched devices. Many of them still carry a large bezel on the lower front of the phone, some for a fingerprint sensor, others for a headphone jack, and some likely because they lack the manufacturing technology to make the display fold elegantly inside the body of the smartphone. Some offer a take on a Face ID system, but none claim that it is truly secure — Samsung’s version of this could be tricked with a photograph. Poorly designed and inadequate, it seems fair to describe many of these things as a bit kludge — the living embodiment of the “complete lack of care,” Ive so often rejects.
An all-display breakthrough
In 2006, even the most sophisticated mobile phones had fiddly little keyboards and ran stripped-down web browsers. With the introduction of multitouch and a keyboard-free, all-glass device, Apple’s revolutionary iPhone in 2007 set the stage for the long design march to all-screen smartphones that continues today.
You don’t have to look too far back in history to see how the company felt when everybody else decided to introduce touch-enabled glass smartphones, too.
Apple’s “courage” in abandoning the headphone jack in 2016’s iPhone 7 was ridiculed by competitors. Now those same competitors are once again following Apple’s lead (look at the Google Pixel 2). They understand Apple’s decision to abandon such things isn’t just an ego-driven triumph of style over content. Removing the headphone jack helped create space for other features, just as removing the Home button helped Apple take another step toward an all-glass smartphone by making the bezel almost invisible.
The notch botch
The big problem Android manufacturers have is their overall lack of software control — except, of course, for Google’s own Pixel phones. While Apple imposes strict design rules so user interface elements are not hidden by the notch, Android device makers don’t have that power. That means some people using a "notched" Android phone will see key app user interface elements hidden by the notch.
The first crop of manufacturers putting notches in their Android devices aren’t really solving the problem of edge-to-edge smartphone design, since the operating system they work with isn’t itself (yet) designed to run such a device.
Google will introduce something like support for the notch in a future Android P update, but the update will initially be made available only to Pixel 2 smartphones. Will it ever be made available to the current notched Android crop? This rather begs the question: With an operating system not yet optimized to work efficiently with notched devices, why are manufacturers putting notches in their products, particularly when doing so compromises usability? Are they truly attempting to solve a technology problem, or are they simply trying to create devices that look like iPhones?
Hint: It’s the latter.
The year of the copycats
Some of what at first glance seems to be slavish imitation is prompted by shared need; the shared need this season seems to be the attempt to eliminate everything on the front of smartphone displays in order to turn them into hermetically sealed sheets of glass.
Asus head of marketing Marcel Compos noted the inclusion of a notch when launching the Zenfone 5 at Mobile World Congress: “Some people will say it’s copying Apple,” he said, “but we cannot get away from what users want. You have to follow the trends.”
More recently, Huawei’s mobile chief, Li Changzhu, claimed that his company had refrained from putting a similar notch inside its products earlier because it wasn’t sure consumers would like it. “We missed our chance to [pioneer] with the notch design,” he said. “We were too conservative and cautious.”
We know how Ive sees such industrial-scale imitation.
“I don’t see it as flattery,” he said at the Vanity Fair Summit in 2014. “When you’re doing something for the first time, you don’t know it’s gonna work, you spend seven or eight years working on something, and then it’s copied. I think it is really straightforward. It is theft and lazy. I don’t think it is OK at all.”
Innovation costs money (and takes time)
Ultimately, smartphone manufacturers share the vision of edge-to-edge OLED displays. The challenge is that these devices still need front-facing cameras and other hardware components (such as Face ID hardware) that can’t easily be hidden behind the display. It takes time — and money — to solve problems like these.
Apple is investing both in its iPhone. Barclays analysts claim the company will shrink the notch’s size in this year’s iPhone collection, while an unconfirmed claim from South Korea’s Electronic Times says Apple will remove it entirely from its 2019 range.
Apple may already have figured out a way to do so. In 2015, it patented a technology in which camera and other components are hidden behind small perforations in the display tiny enough to be invisible to the human eye.
Meanwhile, consumers using the current generation of notched Android smartphones will still likely be waiting on a software update to make their notch useful, or using the Nacho Notch – Notch Hider app to make it disappear. Or they can just wait as Android makers follow Apple’s lead once again into the new notchless future.
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