When the iPhone 4 was announced way back in 2010, the most perplexing thing about it was the choice of glass for its back panel. For a device that you carry around in your pocket all day, it seemed unnecessarily precarious. Some people theorized that it aided signal reception, others thought it would shatter more easily, necessitating a costly replacement. I had my own theory: I thought Apple would eventually add a second screen to the rear, so you could take better selfies, have nicer looking video chats, and see notifications when the phone was face down. The glass back of the iPhone 4 was just there to get users accustomed to the feel.
As usual, we were all wrong. Steve Jobs wanted the glass back because he thought it gave the device a more high-end feel. That’s it. As crazy as the idea of an all-glass mobile phone still seems today, the glassy iPhone 4 was a massive success. People gushed over how nice it felt, especially in comparison to the plastic, rounded back of the iPhone 3G and 3Gs.
Suddenly, lots of people had an unfavorable opinion of the design of the iPhone 3G and 3Gs. They were my first two smartphones, and I really liked them both (the 3Gs especially). Its plastic back was logical. It was durable, it looked good and felt nice. The rounded sides were attractive. The kid at the Apple store who sold me the 3G told me that the shape was inspired by a Pixar cartoon character. We both agreed that it was cute. It was luxury, while at the same time being utilitarian and mass-produced. It was a Volkswagen with Mercedes mystique. It was wonderful.
But Steve Jobs wanted glass, and glass we got. I upgraded to the iPhone 4 in April 2011, and likewise, I really appreciated its classy feel. It really was a better looking and feeling device. The white iPhone 4 (and 4S for that matter) is a triumph of design, however, its glass back always barred it from being a triumph of practicality. However, its worth noting that my iPhone 4 is still in nearly perfect condition. I use it everyday, and I even wrote most of this blog post with it during my commute home.
Today Apple announced the iPhone 5c, and its great design differentiator is its plastic back. The phone is less expensive than other new iPhones ($99), and comes in five colors. Not only are people really excited about this model, but it’s the first item showcased on the front page of Apple.com. The new iPhone 5s (also announced today) is the most advanced mobile phone of all time, with its 64-bit A7 processor, separate M7 coprocessor, fingerprint scanner and large sensor camera, however, the hero of the company’s website is the “unapologetically plastic” iPhone 5c.
It’s a curious shift, to say the least. What engine is at work here? Is it the absence of the late CEO? Perhaps. I can’t imagine Steve Jobs endorsing the swath of official Apple iPhone cases that were announced with these new phones. Jobs hated cases. Has enough time elapsed that people have warmed to the idea of plastic again? Are they just too dazzled by having actual color choices? Or are the majority of people who had an opinion about the glass back of the iPhone 4 going to skip the iPhone 5c and go for the all-aluminum iPhone 5s?
Trying to determine what Jobs would approve and disapprove of is a pretty fruitless endeavor. There’s no doubt in my mind that he would hate those rubbery iPhone cases, but he may have been a big supporter of the plastic iPhone 5c. Betteridge’s Law states that any title ending in a question mark can be answered by the word no, however, I am consciously breaking the code. Steve would definitely “have the backs” of these phones. The graphics on the front would likely look a bit different, though.