Mobile phones design is the worst in history

I would describe mobile phones as the worst industrial design implementation in history.
Understand me, this is a provocative column, so it has to start with a bold statement.
But it is not just a provocative statement for the sake of making an impression.
I truly believe that mobile phones, as they are designed, failed to address one of the most common daily problems: Videos.
A recent survey revealed that 94 per cent of mobile users hold it in portrait mode (vertical) while only 6 per cent set the orientation to either auto-rotate or landscape (horizontal).
The main reason, in my understanding, is that with one hand busy, instead of the two required to operate in landscape mode, we are more free to move around and do other things while using the phone.
Like for example holding the spoon in one hand to eat a bowl of cereals while reading the news from the phone in the other hand.
Or holding our beloved child’s hand while walking and trading cryptocurrencies at the same time.
Or sending by Whatsapp a video of the latest goal by Lionel Messi while driving our car with the other hand on the steering wheel.
All of these dual tasks, besides being at times dangerous, impose a behaviour contrary to the way content is produced.
Let us analyse why and how.
When the first short “movie” was shot in 1894, it was in a square ratio.
It means that width and height of the frame were the same, similar to the standard format of Instagram (120 years before was created Instagram).Later on, however, cinema became a source of revenues, hence theatre owners and movie producers, tried to figure out how to squeeze more paying people in the cinema.
In fact, with a squared frame, cinema theatres could have only been expanded in “depth”, as in “deeper” rooms.
But by doing so, the audience sitting at the back of the room would have complained that the picture was too far to be seen clearly.
Another option was to build multi storey theatres, but there is always a limit to the number of storeys that the room could be built, so that the spectators at the top floor would not need to strain their necks to look down to see the full picture.
So if the 3D axis of Z and Y could not work in cinema theatre expansion, the natural direction was to make larger pictures and abandon the squared ratio.
So movies became larger on the X axis, promoting more and more landscape cinematography.
When TV sets became affordable to pretty much anyone, since they were build in a sort of 4:3 ratio, cinematography faced the first challenge.
At that point some movies were shot as large as 3:1 ratio, and when brought to TV were forced to either crop the sides (a technique known as Pan and Scan), or squeeze the whole picture within the 4:3 frame, leaving black bars on top and below to fill the gaps (a technique known as letterbox or cinemascope). Finally TV set technology progressed and released 16:9 ratio, while cinema production went in that direction too, making the cinema-to-TV transition seamless.
At the same time both desktop and laptop computers moved towards 16:9 and everything worked perfectly.
Until mobile phones were released.
I am sure that in Steve Job’s vision, mobile users would not have minded rotating their device to watch a landscape video.
But it probably did not occur to him that mobile users would have become by far the largest producers of video content.
And so slowly YouTube became populated by funny looking portrait videos, played in a landscape player in a landscape laptop monitor, cutting out nearly 80 per cent of the surface of the screen.
This weird look did not deter amateur video producers (all of us) from keep shooting in portrait mode, instead of landscape.
Hence now, 10 years into smartphones, content is produced in a very non-smart way, which works great when watching portrait video on a portrait phone, but looks ridiculous when watched on a TV set, desktop or laptop computer.
While playing news videos received from the viewers, TV broadcasting stations are forced to add a landscape blurred version of the portrait video in the background of the video itself, in the attempt to make it look less awkward.
There will be a point in near future where there will be more portrait videos than landscape videos, and that will become the normality.
In the meantime if desktop and laptop computers will become portrait by default (and TV sets follow immediately after), movie producer will be forced to consider shooting movies in portrait mode, for the first time in 120 year of cinematography.

Stefano Virgilli
stefano@virgilli.com