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Mass Customisation and Mobile Phones

28Apr08 by Matt Sinclair

Header image

Bearing in mind I used to work for Nokia, I guess it’s inevitable that I follow what’s going on in the mobile phone world closer than most. But in the last couple of months I’ve seen a few things that are particularly relevant to my research, so this post will look at some of the issues involved with the customisation of mobile phones.

The first deliberately customisable phone was the Nokia 5110. Few people are aware that the initial reason for the 5110′s changeable cover was nothing to do with offering consumers choice though, rather it was an early attempt to employ just in time manufacturing in response to customer demand. Joseph Pine writes in Mass Customization about how just in time (JIT) strategies have often led to companies embracing mass customisation without necessarily realising it at the time.

Nokia 5110

Nokia 5110 with user changeable cover © Nokia

The 5110 wasn’t the first phone with coloured covers that Nokia offered, however at that early stage the company hadn’t developed its expertise in spotting and understanding trends, and so colour prediction was largely based on intuition. In the past this had led to certain models which were sold out in one particular colour, whilst the same model in another colour sat unsold in warehouses. The thinking behind the 5110 was that a huge reduction in inventory costs could be achieved if it was plastic covers that went unsold, rather than complete phones.

I’m not sure who first realised the opportunity an easily changeable cover offered in terms of the way a phone could be marketed, but I know that it didn’t meet with universal approval. Many of Nokia’s designers, myself included, thought that offering choice in this way was a sign that the company didn’t really know what its customer’s wanted (and in a way we were right). What no-one predicted was the way that the ‘Xpress-On’ covers would take off – the 5110 quickly became Nokia’s best selling phone and for a while almost every phone the company offered had usable changeable covers. But in addition, it spawned a massive industry of third party manufacturers, such that at one point it seemed you couldn’t walk down the main street of any city in the world without noticing the opportunity to change the way your phone looked.

Nokia 5110 covers

Covers for the 5110, only one of these is an official Nokia cover

The popularity of the user changeable cover seems to be long past its peak now. None of Nokia’s current models offer Xpress-On covers as far as I can tell, and this seems to be the same amongst most other manufacturers. I think there’s probably a few reasons, the main one being that it’s just the inevitable way that trends come and go. And the increasingly disposable nature of mobile phones, particularly when they’re sold as part of a pay-monthly plan which often allow a free upgrade every year, means changing the colour of the cover is no longer such a big deal. But this doesn’t mean there isn’t still a demand for some form of customisation.

One current trend in terms of customisation is the use of crystals to decorate products. Swarovski is currently running a competition where users are invited to either design or decorate a watch; though the competition is due to end this month, so the link may be out-dated soon. (As a side note, it’s interesting that the competition is being run under the name of a Swarovski sub-brand – Signity – I guess Swarovski is worried that its brand name could be damaged by its entry to the ‘lower end’ of the market). This trend has also shown itself in the mobile phone market, with companies such as Bling My Thing offering customised, (Swarovski) crystal encrusted phones.

Bling My Thing phone covers

Customised Apple iPhone © Bling My Thing

Glueing crystals to the body of a mobile phone may be an unconventional jewellery technique, and it’s undoubtedly time consuming. But for those who want a more traditional approach when looking to customise their high-tech products, there are a number of companies who can offer their services. Goldstriker specialise in metal plating using materials such as gold, rose gold and platinum, and offer their services on products as diverse as zippo lighters, golf balls and alloy rims.

Prada phone by Goldstriker

Customised LG KE850 Prada edition © Goldstriker

As well as customising products such as the Apple iPhone and many of Nokia’s models, Goldstriker also offer customised versions of the Prada special edition for LG, and the Armani special edition for Samsung. I find these especially interesting, because LG and Samsung have obviously partnered with these brands in order to buy a sense of exclusivity, the kind a high end fashion label can offer but which a mass market consumer electronics company cannot. And yet Goldstriker (and presumably their customers) have decided that Prada and Armani didn’t do the job well enough, and indeed that they can improve on it. I don’t imagine there is a viable business which involves taking suits or dresses from Prada or Armani and ‘improving’ them (though I’m happy to be proved wrong if anyone can point me to this). So what does this say about these kind of collaborations? Who ‘owns’ the product, Prada or LG? And are both brands really gaining?

Blackberry Pearl by Amosu

Customised Blackberry Pearl © Amosu

But if Goldstriker’s offerings don’t advertise your wealth sufficiently, you can flaunt the success of your taste by-pass operation with a phone from Amosu. For £45 000 you can buy one of only 20 gold and diamond encrusted Blackberry Pearls. What I find most bewildering here is that what Amosu do is no different to Bling My Thing, in that there is no attempt to change the basic product. The keys and window are the same plastic parts you get on a standard Blackberry, they just have diamonds next to them. But who imagines that diamonds and plastic are a quality combination? Where is the skill, or even the pride in doing something well?

What the examples I’ve mentioned so far have in common is that although they allow the consumer to customise their phone, there is little opportunity for the user to do any more than choose from an extended menu of aesthetic options. Bling My Thing sells kits of crystals to allow consumers to customise their own products, but doesn’t show any examples. But Crystal Iced, another company which will cover your phone in Swarovski crystals, also offers bespoke customisations to the customer’s own design. Still, this is the kind of thing that’s been around for a long time in Japan, which itself is a development of the kind of customisation I saw in Harajuku in 1998 – individual designs airbrushed onto phone covers, often being done in nail salons. Jan Chipchase, a researcher at Nokia who’s lived in Tokyo for a long time, has made a number of reports on user-customised phones in Japan, personal shrines as he calls them, including one study which revealed personalisation on the inside of the back cover

pictures on inside of phone covers

Back covers of Japanese phones, © Jan Chipchase / Nokia

“Unless the back cover was removed from the phone no-one else would see or would know the photo was there so my assumption is that the photos were for personal consumption, or at the owner’s discretion for sharing with someone else. A number of the photos appeared quite intimate – a couple hugging, a child, friends doing things in privacy of a photo booth.”

What I particularly like about this observation is the way it upsets many of the perceived wisdoms about why people customise products, ie that it’s all about wanting to demonstrate how creative or unique they are. Doubtless this applies to many people, but these examples show there can also be much more private reasons.

Chipchase’s research may have played some part in one of Nokia’s more interesting experiments with customisation, the 3200. This model allowed the user to place templates under the clear plastic front and back covers, allowing the design to be seen from the outside. It came with 3 designs, as well as 10 blank templates onto which the user could print their own design; there was also a template cutter available as an optional accessory.

Nokia 3200

Nokia 3200 © Nokia

I’m not exactly sure why the 3200 failed as a concept, although on phone review sites it seems to have been criticised for the quality of the camera and display, which implies the customisable aspect wasn’t a significant USP for users. I’d also be interested to know if there were any attempts to build a community around the phone – a place where users could post their designs and download others. All in all I think it’s a shame Nokia abandoned the idea so readily, particularly as the concept of user-customisable phones seems to be gaining interest.

Easy Tile phone concept

Easy Tiles phone concept

The Easy Tiles phone concept, designed by Tzu-Fu Wang, was receiving a lot of attention a few weeks ago. Despite being decidedly lo-tech, most commenters seemed to understand the rationale behind a phone who’s appearance could be easily changed. Maybe more practical concerns would have been raised if the concept was actually a viable product, but it would be interesting to see how the same commenters would react to some of the designs Leonardo Bonanni has created for the TuxPhone project.

TuxPhone Concepts

TuxPhone covers © Leonardo Bonanni

TuxPhone is a project to develop an open source GSM/GPRS mobile phone. Though the prototype is crude, it is able to make and receive calls. More interesting from my point of view though, is the thinking behind Bonanni’s concepts for the phone’s covers. In the same open source spirit as the main project, the idea is that the instructions for making the covers should be downloadable, and the covers themselves should be easy to fabricate and modify using relatively crude tools and materials such as wood, aluminium and fabric. My favourite concept though, much better than the Easy Tiles phone, is a cover made from Lego. Bonanni released the design for this on the Lego Factory site, such that anyone could order the bricks required and download the instructions easily. (This also started me wondering whether Lego Factory should be added to the list of simple software which consumers might someday use in the place of CAD.)

Lego TuxPhone concept

Lego TuxPhone cover © Leonardo Bonanni

In the same spirit as the TuxPhone project, OpenMoko from Taiwan first made the software of their Neo 1973 phone freely available, and then in March this year released the CAD files for the product. The files are available as STEP, IGES or native ProE under a Creative Commons Share Alike license: you can change them anyway you like as long as you acknowledge OpenMoko as the original creator and license your creations in the same way.

OpenMoko exploded view

Neo 1973 CAD model © OpenMoko

It will be really interesting to see the results of this CAD model being released. The complexity of the model means it’s definitely aimed at developers with design and engineering resources, rather than the consumer. On the other hand the product has obviously been designed with customisation as a high priority, from the basic concept of a touch screen interface, which reduces the complexity needed to design a keymat (as well as offering much more scope for UI customisation) to the relatively simple shape and somewhat over-engineered construction, which will make the product more durable. The hole through the bottom of the phone is also interesting: it gives the product a distinctive look, but also implies there is a lot of space to increase the board size and add custom chips and functionality.


Neo 1973 © OpenMoko

Finally I want to end this post with another phone that was getting a lot of attention a few weeks ago, a Nokia N70 customised and quickly labelled the Buddha phone. I’ve read on some sites that this phone is gold plated, though others have said it is painted which seems more likely looking at the finish. The intricacy of the markings is quite amazing, whether they’ve been masked and then spray painted, or something else, it shows a lot of skill. Yes, to my eyes it’s incredibly kitsch, but that’s what’s so interesting because as a professional designer I would never come up with something like this.

Customised Buddhist phone 1

Customised Nokia N70 Buddhist Phone

When talking to other designers about the future of mass customisation, the reaction is often one of dismay, or disbelief, that consumers with no taste will be able to design and make their own products. To which my first response is that designers themselves are pretty capable of designing tasteless objects. But regardless, the point is that whether designers (and companies or brands) like it or not, this kind of thing is going to be increasingly common. It doesn’t matter whether most people think the Buddha phone is tasteless or kitsch or crass, what matters is that one person though it was a good idea, and that person went to a huge amount of time and effort to create a unique product. This is only going to get easier as rapid manufacturing technologies bring production close to the consumer. Think of the OpenMoko project, consumer-friendly CAD software and a high quality 3D printer, and then imagine how many Buddha phones might appear.

Customised Buddhist phone 2

Customised Nokia N70 Buddhist Phone

POSTED IN: 02 Mass Customisation, 7 Comments

7 Responses

  1. csven

    Nice entry. Much appreciated.

  2. plus six » links for 2008-05-01

    [...] Mass Customisation and Mobile Phones (we dont do retro) Matt Sinclair on the history of mass customisation of mobile phones. (tags: mobile phone masscustomisation design nokia) [...]

  3. Ponoko Blog

    [...] I first started at Nokia there wasn’t much opportunity to put these ideas into practice, at least not at first. But Nokia [...]

  4. michael

    thanks for the post. really useful for my academic research.

  5. OpenMoko – Design Your Own Phone « Ponoko – Blog

    [...] writing this post Matt Sinclair has written an extended piece on Mass Customization of Mobile (cell) Phones, Dang, it’s good…. and includes [...]

  6. Farha Ahmad

    Hi..I have huge interest in mass customization of mobile phones..
    Do you think mass customization of mobile phone features is possible? In terms of external design (outer appearance),I definitely agree with you. Yes,we should allow customers to specify their own design–no matter how bad it will turn out!
    But what about allowing customers to choose their own desired features? SMS, video, 3G/4G, camera etc etc

  7. Rose

    Some of those phones look really dated now lol – but the customisations are really cool!