by jebni on January 17, 2007
I got a new phone yesterday — a Dopod 838Pro — and for the first time in many years I’m using a device running under a Microsoft operating system. Yep, it’s a Windows Mobile PocketPC thing. Most people know me as an Apple snob, and I am, but I was also one of the few people on the planet to put Windows 1.0 to serious use. I stopped using Windows when I got to University, where I could finally use Macs, which were in abundance there — I’d been relegated for years to lusting after the whole modern Apple user experience from afar. I mean, in 1985, as I put up with Windows 1.0, I used to decorate my school diary entries with ballpoint renditions of Apple Lisa user interface widgets, for fuck’s sake. (Hmmm, should I be admitting this?) A lust for “real design”.
Meanwhile, I’m not one of those people who simply wants a phone that just makes calls really well. While I can appreciate the elegance of the concept, I simply don’t make enough phone calls to justify such a single-use gadget in my pocket any more. So instead I’ve gone down the foolish route of getting ridiculous, button-encrusted, Swiss-Army-knife-style PDA phones that try to do everything, but which end up being rather mediocre on most fronts. Bad design. I wait, as always, for the iPhone, which might arrive in Australia in 2008. Good design. But in the meantime, my last phone was falling apart, and my dodgy phone provider was letting me upgrade…
More interestingly, I also liked the idea of challenging my own brand/design fetishism and buying a phone that was openly from a Taiwanese original design manufacturer called High Tech Computer (!), whose ubiquitous products are usually rebranded in English speaking countries under much more, ah, reputable names like HP/Compaq. (Dopod is HTC’s own consumer brand.) In the widely perceived affective/design hierarchy of Asian consumer electronics brands, you have Japanese companies like Sony (now perched precariously) at the top, then Korean ones like Samsung and LG increasingly rumbling from below, and then the anonymous Taiwanese and PRC manufacturers at the bottom. Sony already equals “design”, while the recent design revolution in Korean consumer electronics has been notable. (The success of LG and Samsung in this particular domain, and the relationship between design and manufacturing, would be really interesting to contextualise in terms of the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s…)
So: how are the Chinese people that design and manufacture for companies in Europe and the US figured in terms of their own “design excellence”, their capacity for credible, sexy originality? While the Dopod 838Pro isn’t exactly a design masterpiece, it’s relatively stylish as such things go, like other Taiwanese tech products. In other words, it’s sexier than you think, and why is that? And yet the veneer of the iPod-like über-commodity is still yet unavailable — seemingly disqualified in advance, as if will be for emerging, self-branded Mainland Chinese consumer electronics products. The idea that there’s a castrating absence of a sophisticated, cosmopolitan consumer population in the Chinese-speaking world that contributes to this disqualification is like the idea that there’s no civil society in the Middle East; the correctness or incorrectness of such mythologies aside, the fantastic imperatives invested in their maintenance are far more interesting. Meanwhile, my iPod was “Designed by Apple in California” and manufactured by anonymised “horde” of Chinese Foxconn workers in “the East”. How tenable will it be to sustain the geopolitical division of design/manufacturing labour that such über-commodification relies upon? These are the things I ponder as I stroke my new phone. :)