Business, Marketing, Psychology, Society, Tech

Material Love

English: Apple iPhone (left) vs HTC Hero (righ...

English: Apple iPhone (left) vs HTC Hero (right). Adapted from original source, to scramble screenshot of non-free software. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My phone’s outer shell is made from plastic and a piece of thin glass.  My car’s made of metal.  If the car was made of carbon fibre it would be seen as premium and special, yet the new Samsung Galaxy S4 has been criticised for being made of plastic, because it’s not metal like the iPhone 5.

It’s not the first time the tech industry has had a metal fetish, in the seventies and eighties everything “premium” had to have a brushed aluminium fascia, then we went through the period where clear coloured plastic was fashionable, a fad caused in a large part by Apple again with the original iMac and its guts-and-all on show design approach.  Sleek black plastic in exotic moulded shapes was the future.  For a while.

Today it doesn’t matter how good quality the plastic, or more accurately in expensive phones, polycarbonate is the legions of gadget blog and mag writers and commenters will whinge that it feels cheap compared to the metal iPhone or new HTC One purely because it isn’t metal.  The idea that metal is premium comes from the sense that it’s more resilient, like high-end granite kitchen worktops, and that it takes more effort, more craftsmanship to make, hewn from blocks of aluminium by bespectacled artisans.  A CNC milling machine in reality is a little less romantic and premium.

The strange thing is that the metal phones are more prone to the screen cracking, easier to scratch and more likely to be permanently dented when dropped.  But despite this and despite the fact that the plastics in even my sub-£100 phone feel solid and quality as far as I’m concerned metal is the thing to have.  But it’s all image, until the iPhone gained a metal body no-one cared about it, there were plastic phones that felt sturdy and plastic phones that felt like they were made out of microwave meal cartons and the iPhone 3G was one of the former (for better signal strength).  In fact many old phones had metal backplates that many people probably didn’t even think about.  It’s also marketing, use a different material for the case, tell people its revolutionary and so much cooler and better and people will snap it up.

The next big thing?  I’ve heard it’s going to be ceramic phones*, you know shiny, glossy, tough enamelled ceramics.  It’ll be the thing to have.   “Aluminium?  The same stuff they make Coke cans out of?  So cheap feeling, so cold, look at my new phone, it’s ceramic.”

(* – I may have imagined this.)


Plastic World


Tea (Photo credit: chumsdock)

A few weeks ago the lid of my kettle disintegrated so I bought a new one, from a well-known brand.  It looked nice, had a blue light inside that shimmered as the water boiled and the unusual feature that the water that came out of it tasted of plastic.  I boiled it a few times, cleaned the inside, tried emptying it out after use but to no avail.

When I searched for the kettle on Google to see if there were any product recalls in place, you know the kind of thing – plastic kettle leaching chemicals into the water – I found nothing except dozens of people complaining about the same issue on Amazon’s product page for the very same kettle, people had tried everything I had.

I tried to get round the problem for a couple of weeks but eventually I was fed up of not being able to taste my tea for the overwhelming flavour of plastic – I see enough of the stuff at work, I have no desire to eat, or drink it at home.  I found the box, the instructions, the receipt and trudged back to the shop.  I explained the situation to one assistant and immediately the assistant next to her said someone she knew had the same one and the same problem, then the customer next to me said that her son had the same problem.  No doubt the manufacturer would say there was no risk to health from it but still I don’t like the idea of chemicals leaching into my morning cuppa.  I swapped it for a metal kettle.

I don’t write bad reviews of a product if it goes wrong, it could be a one-off failure, but this was unbelievable – three people in that shop had the same problem with this simplest of devices, and dozens more on Amazon too.  I felt disappointed that such a product was allowed out of the factory of a respected brand and hoped it was perhaps an oversight rather than a case of concern about profits dictating the use of lower quality materials.  Plastic is already often seen as cheap, we don’t need it tasting like it too – with appliances like this we deserve better.