Against the Smartphone Thinness Fetish

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Have you heard the good news? It is rumored -- not confirmed, sadly, but rumored -- that the Samsung Galaxy S III smartphone will be only seven millimeters thick! That's a big relief, because the Samsung Galaxy S II (pictured above) was a whopping 8.5 millimeters thick--and who wants to be seen walking around talking to a brick?

Of course, there's a downside to a 7-millimeter-thick phone: It will have less battery life than a thicker phone could have had. And it will be harder to hold onto than a thicker phone, so you'll be more likely to drop it and watch in horror as it plunges to its death. But in between the time it leaves your hand and the time it hits the concrete, it will look really attractive. Same goes for when you're on the road and the battery is dead: It's an awesome kind of dead.

I've waited until now to unload this rant about the gadget thinness fettish because I wanted to let a decent interval pass after the death of the man I blame for it: Steve Jobs.

Remember when Jobs first unveiled the Macbook Air? I do, because I had long been a fan of the small, lightweight computers that had until then been available only on the Windows platform. Jobs brought the machine onstage in a manila envelope, because the thing he wanted to wow the audience with was its thinness.

I thought: Who cares how thin it is? Thickness isn't the dimension that really matters when you have to fit a computer into a tiny backpack or use it in a coach seat on an airplane. And, anyway, more important than any spatial dimension is weight. Sure, to the extent that thinner means lighter, thinness is good, but if you make thinness an end in itself, you start compromising functionality.

Witness the new generation of Windows "ultrabooks"--machines designed to compete with the Macbook Air. Read the parts of the ultrabook reviews that focus on the keyboards. Chances are the reviewer will say either that the keyboard is bad or that, happily, the keyboard isn't quite as bad as the average ultrabook keyboard. The main reason is that the keys don't have far enough to travel--even though adding a millimeter of travel space would have added almost nothing to the machine's weight.

Jobs hewed true to his thinness fetish with the iPhone. (That's one reason iPhone batteries aren't replaceable.) And the iPhone set the aesthetic standard for a whole generation of smartphones. It's a testament to the charisma and marketing genius of Jobs that he could start a global fashion wave that millions of people have cheerfully succumbed to even as it makes their lives more problematic.

The good news is that the tide may be turning. Motorola just unveiled the Droid Razr Maxx--a new iteration of the Droid Razr that is thicker than the original. The reason is that the original, while claiming the title "thinnest 4G phone on the market," also claimed the title "phone with bad battery life."

Last week Brad Molen of Engadget reviewed the Razr Maxx. One of his main complaints was that the Maxx would make people who had just bought the original Droid Razr feel cheated. "How many owners," Molen asked, "would much rather have a device that's still very reasonably svelte and offers astronomically superb battery life?" That's the kind of question that could start a fashion revolution.

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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