The purported new iPhone: a brief design observation

Tech Life

I am pretty sure you all know the details regarding the recent “iPhone prototype found in a bar then stolen then sold then I don’t know” saga. I really don’t want to elaborate on Gizmodo and its gizmodus operandi — I just think that some kind of ‘journalism’ stands at the bottom of a bottomless well.

I want to focus briefly on the design of this purported new iPhone prototype. I don’t know which stage of hardware development this prototype represents and how close to the final product the design is. On the one hand, it has undoubtedly a quasi-finished look. And if the new iPhone is going to look much like this prototype, I agree with those who believe it is exquisitely sober, minimal, Dieter Rams-like, therefore in line with Jonathan Ive’s trademark.

On the other hand it surprises me a bit to find the new iPhone hardware design basically finished two good months before the official launch. I mean, I have studied Apple’s history for a while now, and one recurring pattern has always been the tight schedule and the impossible deadlines given to the various development teams. Also, Apple is known for its design investigations, often manufacturing test units that may look quite different from one another. And again, I was thinking, the forthcoming iPhone is going to be more of a hardware novelty — we already know how the software is going to look and work.

So, while examining the photos of Gizmodo’s triumphant exhibition I was thinking that this prototype might just be a form-factor investigation. It might be 90% similar to how the finished product will like, but I definitely don’t think that “that’s it”. Yes, I believe the new iPhone will have a flat back. Yes, I believe it’ll look more like a mini iPad and have aluminium unibody suggestions. The two things I genuinely hope it won’t take from this prototype are:

  1. the seams — although I could like them if their presence is justified. (For instance, if they somehow contribute to hold the device more firmly);
  2. the volume controls.

Now, about the volume controls, let’s see a detail of the prototype and the current iPhone 3GS implementation:

iPhone prototype volume controls

Detail of the iPhone prototype’s volume controls. (Thankfully I could crop out the ‘Gizmodo Exclusive’ watermark of pride)


iPhone 3GS voume controls

Detail of the single-button design of the iPhone 3GS volume controls. (Picture taken from Apple’s website — © Apple, Inc.)


The two round metallic buttons are simple and lovely from a purely abstract design viewpoint. But the single button design of the iPhone 3GS and its predecessors is more user-friendly and thoughtful. When you’re handling the phone in your pocket without looking, your fingers instantly feel which is the up and which is the down button. The two separate round buttons of the prototype are identical and there’s no immediate way (immediate as in “not a iota of thought involved”) to distinguish them by touch. Since the prototype was disguised in a plastic outer shell that made it look like a normal iPhone 3GS, it’s likely that there was also a plastic one-button shell with two inner ‘needles’ to reach the up/down volume controls on the real phone inside the case, if you know what I mean.

If the new iPhone is going to look a lot like this prototype, I think it’s a nice improvement and I really love the flat surfaces and the minimal aesthetics. I just hope Apple will make those volume controls more distinguishable to the touch, either by keeping them separate but with slightly different, angled shapes, or by sticking to the one-button variant but with sharper edges to match the overall design.

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