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Restart Podcast Ep. 76: Funky phones and durable design, with Ben Wood

Ben Wood

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This month, we were super excited to talk to Ben Wood. Ben is Chief Analyst at CCS Insight and also the founder of the Mobile Phone Museum. All this to say, Ben is an expert in the field of mobile phone design and history. We talked to him about some of the coolest phone design trends of the past and what innovation is still happening. He also shared some very encouraging statistics from consumer studies that CCS Insight have conducted. These show that repairability and long-lasting devices are at the front of consumers’ minds. 

Why did the Mobile Phone Museum start?

Ben tells us about the inception of the Mobile Phone Museum, a collection of over 5,000 devices. He started the collection when he witnessed the disposal of phones in which he recognised historic and educational value. From then on, he set his sights on saving and preserving these retired devices. 

Not all of the phones are truly functioning but they are carefully stored with design integrity in mind. Ben tells us about some of the sneaky swaps they make – like curly cords from guitar amps – to keep the phones looking their most authentic. The phones are all archived on the museum’s website and it’s wonderful to see the array of shapes and colours that purvey older phone design.

In 2021, the collection was temporarily exhibited in person for public viewing and Ben hopes that similar events can start up again soon. They also bring the collection into schools in the hope that it will inspire the next generation of designers. Education is integral to the mission of the Mobile Phone Museum, especially as newer generations grow up with smartphones as the norm. If you would like to explore the collection, each model has been beautifully photographed on the museum’s website. 

Resistant and repairable rainbow phones

Early Nokia models like the 2110, and the Motorola V70 are among Ben’s favourite phones in the collection. And he seems to have a penchant for the nostalgic entries. He also tells us about some stand-out designs like a phone modelled after a James Bond gadget, and a rainbow Motorola.

Our big question was: were mobile phones more repairable in the past? Ben says that they were definitely more durable. If your phone screen was less likely to break in the first place, there was less need to repair it. But it is true that the modularity of these older models made them simpler to take apart and replace these broken parts. Ben makes a case for Fairphone being the glimmer of hope for a more repairable future. This return to modularity would make spare part replacements easier and upgrades as well.

Is actual innovation still happening?

Ben believes that innovation in smartphone design has been slowing down rapidly in recent years. In comparison to the massive leaps in camera spec that we might have seen in the 2000s and 2010s. The visual design of phones has also become very homogenous, leaving little variation between models. 

“The honest truth at the moment is phones have got pretty boring since Steve Jobs walks onto the stage in San Francisco in January 2007 and pulled the iPhone out of his pocket. And that really established this dominant design of the black rectangle with a touch screen and a camera on the back. And that’s the world that we’ve lived in.”

While not optimal for screen replacement, he is excited by the folding displays that have recently entered the market. We agree that this lack of innovation though may be helpful in slowing down consumer demand. At the moment, it seems that manufacturers are having to use gimmicks like new colourschemes, rather than undertaking real innovation in the sector.

Consumers are calling for repair

What’s really exciting for our work at Restart are the studies from CCS Insight’s Connected Consumer Radar. They found that “compared to 12 months ago, we now see that 57% of consumers are more conscious about the impact that their purchases are making on the environment.” He also shares that the length of time that customers are keeping their phones has gotten longer and that more people have the desire to repair their devices when they break. What is important then, is making these repairs possible. This is what we push for on the Right to Repair campaign. 

“Making a phone last is much more than just the physical aspects of the device…can you get the security updates onto the device? And right now it’s very, very encouraging to see phone manufacturers starting to say that they will support updates for at least four years.”

Ben has hope that repair will become more common and possible, citing recent moves by major manufacturers towards this. He also notes that legislation will be needed to ensure that these early moves snowball into more substantial change. Again, he says that companies like Fairphone are leading the way in terms of repair innovation and hopes that this level of modularity will become more common as the market changes.

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