Mobile phones are made of plastic, and this is a shame.
It’s a very functional material, easy to keep clean and germ free. It can be moulded easily to shape but it’s not an emotional material. No-one gets emotional about types of plastic. “Oh, I love that polycarbonate” or “that polyvinyl chloride” is wonderful. You might get the odd Bakelite fan, but generally people don’t care.

Cloth covered Nokia 7200

Nokia tried covering the 7200 with cloth, it was a sales flop but that might have been as much to do with it being a rubbish phone. It's not clear if the fabric made a material difference.

Emotional materials

They do care about woods, metals and leathers. “Look at my calf-skin boots”, or “my chamois jacket”. One odd-ball car manufacturer wanted it’s new exotic car to ape an Aston Martin so they made it of hand beaten aluminium. Frome a scientific approach carbon fibre would have been better and easier, but it didn’t have the tradition of aluminium curved on an English wheel.

And yet a mobile phone is possibly the most personal device in existence. It’s your link with everyone you know. Lose your phone and you’ll feel bereft. Personalisation of mobile phones is a big deal with ringtones, wallpapers, cases and those little characters the Japanese kids hang off them.

Siemens Nokia and Motorola

From left to right, the Siemens SL45, Nokia 8810 and Motorola Razr. All landmark phones that you'd be proud to be seen with. All made of metal.

So why are they always still plastic? When phones have been made out of metal they are a bit special. The Motorola Razr with its stamped aluminium keypad, the Siemens SL45 and the Nokia 8810. All of these have been landmark phones. Metal does pose a problem with radio design, and very often phones that you think are 100% metal have some parts that are painted plastic with the antenna behind them. That is not the problem with wood, rubber or leather. Carbon fibre has a great technical air to it and is radio transparent but doesn’t have the warm feeling of the other materials. Even metal is more emotional than carbon fibre. Of course using precious metals such as gold and silver have a special appeal. A golden Vertu phone can set you back more than £100,000.

Perceived quality

Metal has another under-looked aspect: density. This is what gives a small device a quality feel. A small clam can feel toy-like but get the density right and it exudes quality. This is why a Zippo lighter feels higher quality than a Cricket. The improved density can also help get the balance right, in a clam you want the centre of gravity under the 5 key. You can also get it very wrong as Motorola demonstrated with the Pebble which had far too much weight in the top and would tumble out of your hand as you opened it.

Unfortunately there is only one metal clam phone aimed at the senior market, the ITT Monaco V300 which is very hard to get hold of. And even that is half plastic.

Comfort 300

The ITT Monaco V300 is a big button mobile with a metal front,

It’s other materials which hold the most promise though. A common criticism of wood and leather is that it’s hard to maintain consistency. This however does not seem to be an issue for the furniture and footwear industries.
One thing which marks out both these materials is that they are fragrant. They say men like women in leather because it reminds them of a new car, and in a car it is very much the smell as much as the feel of the material. Wood and leather are much more pleasant materials to hold against your face than metal or plastic.
Motorola has just launched the Droid Razr, which combines Kevlar, metal and glass – no plastic in sight but it’s far from a trend which is a shame, maybe if I have to have a telephone made out of plastic I can get one in Bakelite.

An old, person's phone not an old persons phone.

Simon Rockman