Sunday, November 06, 2005

Who needs choice?

Many years ago, just as mobile phones were beginning to be commonplace, I had a Motorola d520 and wanted an Ericsson instead. I was desperately in desire of one of those flip-down models. I'm ashamed to say that this wasn't because of some outstanding engineering solution; instead it was because I saw an accessories shop sell a replacement bodyshell for an Ericsson flipdown that was made entirely out of unpolished wood.

What can I say - I was fifteen, and it was the coolest thing ever. In fact I did get a T10 shortly afterwards, but I never bought the bodyshell. Eventually I got an Ericsson A2618s - a remarkable model in many respects, not least of which was the easy replacement of the front and rear panels; you could buy new ones and interchange them at will. This feature was shared by a later model I used, a Siemens C55. But guess what? I have never in my entire life bought an aftermarket panel for a mobile phone. Ever.

It really is an excellent example of marketing think triumphing over common sense and an understanding of reality. The customer may want to have a choice of colors when buying a phone - it was a stroke of genius on Siemens's part to offer the outstanding M55 in both 'youthful' red-on-silver and serious black-on-grey schemes - but with the exception of a small demographic of pink & fluffy schoolgirls with too much allowance, nobody in their right mind would purposefully spend money on something quite as ridiculous as a clip-on panel. If you see a Nokia 5110 in green leopard print, you can be sure that the current owner got it used, and the mobile shop replaced the worn bodyshell with one they haven't been able to sell for half a decade.

To my great relief, clip-on body panels and their progressively questionable companions like the flashing antennas of 90s folk legend have gone the way of the dodo. Nokia is still selling to fashion victims, but at least they don't soil the image of their more proper models with aftermarket paraphernalia.

The meme is still alive and kicking though: in the world of mobile phones, the preposterous customization itch is being scratched by ringtones, logos, themes and screensavers. But car designers are just beginning to rediscover the whole thing. Some applications have been good (the perfume cartridge in the Citroen C4 is a genuinely good idea), some bad (does any Smart owner actually have more than one set of body panels?) and some downright laughable. At the Frankfurt auto show this year, BMW presented the concept car that will become the next-generation Mini. Among the innovations offered to young buyers with active lifestyles are customizable rims: a central spoke-and-hub assembly onto which the driver can mount clip-on design patterns to suit the mood and fashion of the moment.

That's right. They've just discovered hubcaps.

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