It’s easy to think of something like the iPhone as the epitome of industrial design: a thin bit of beauty with alien curves equally capable of pinpointing your location in space or firing an email across the globe. And this intoxication with poetic industrial design leads to a dangerous bit of thinking–that if iPhones were cheap enough, they’d take over emerging markets like India and Africa.
But as Emmanuel Quartey–head of product at the African tech school MEST—explains on Medium, he’s spotted a new phone that’s taking over Ghana. It’s a brandless, unadvertised, brick of a handset that can barely run Facebook and Whatsapp; and yet, his tech-savvy friends who own smartphones are being wooed to it. As he explains:
I first saw this phone a few weeks ago when a friend plopped it down on our restaurant table. I initially had trouble processing what I was seeing. At a time when phone manufacturers are racing to make devices ever thinner, the sheer size of this thing is almost lewd.
I made fun of him for his brick and listened disbelievingly when he said everyone had one. The phone lay forgotten as we caught up over lunch.
A few days later, while walking by a colleague’s desk, I noticed a familiar black silhouette. It was the same phone.
The secret of the black brick phone, he reasons, is that it includes a huge battery which also functions as a powerbank. Five and a half times larger than the battery in an iPhone 6, it can charge people’s devices in a region where frequent blackouts have left people without power for upwards of 36 hours. To sweeten the deal, it also includes an FM radio and an LED flashlight.
His conclusions? Smartphones with week-long batteries could penetrate emerging markets better than any other idea Silicon Valley’s got. And “distinctive trumps pretty.” Even if the power bank phone is ugly, you can’t ignore it.
However, I’m not sure that I totally agree with his second conclusion. Sure, distinct can translate to sales, but the real reason people are buying the phone seems to be that it’s responding to a constant irritant: the power is always out.
And in this sense, this ugly old phone is a very typical design lesson, reminding us that design isn’t about being the most beautiful object or cramming in the most features or being the first and cheapest market. It’s about solving the everyday problems that people have.