Putting the ‘customer’ into customisation – why mobile phones aren’t *yet* the new cars

The Economist have published an interesting little opinion piece on “Why phones are replacing cars (and why this is a good thing)”. Mobile phones are now the primary way in which young people express their individualism, with clip-on covers, ringtones and the increasingly outrageous styling of phone/cam/game/PDA hybrids. The article makes a good point about how phone styling has made a transition from its utilitarian roots:

“The design of both cars and phones started off being defined by something that was no longer there. Cars were originally horseless carriages, and early models looked suitably carriage-like; only later did car designers realise that cars could be almost any shape they wanted to make them. Similarly, mobile phones used to look much like the push-button type of fixed-line phones, only without the wire. But now they come in a bewildering range of strange shapes and sizes.”

Just as cars were the first symbol of independence for previous generations of teenagers, mobile phones are now symbols of freedom, giving kids a private space to anchor their social lives and a mobility to discover and test boundaries. Customisation of these symbols of freedom – whether they are cars or phones – are all part of teenagers exploring and rehearsing different identities and social roles.

But there are major differences in the types of customisation going on. One of the most famous essays about youth culture’s fascination with customisation is Tom Wolfe’s ‘Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby’. Famously written as a stream of consciousness letter to his editor at Esquire in lieu of a ‘polished’ article, ‘Kandy…’ covered the underground car customisation culture of southern california, matching the breathless prose of his ‘new journalism’ to the beer-and-gasoline-fuelled aerodynamic aesthetics of souped up Fords and Chevys. But Wolfe also notices how rigidly enforced these styles were, how the aestetics of ‘cool’ were as defined and defended as the morals they were rebelling against:

“These kids are absolutely maniacal about form. They are practically religious about it. For example, the dancers: none of them ever smiled. They stared at each other’s legs and feet, concentrating […] And the bouffant kids all had form, wild form, but form with rigid standards, one gathers […] They were all wonderful slaves to form. They have created their own style of life, and they are much more authoritarian about enforcing it than are adults.”

The gods of this religion of ‘form’ are car customisers like George Barris, whose body shop – called ‘Kustom City’ – Wolfe compares to an artists’ studio, making comparisons between Barris’ swooping, curvilinear adaptations of the ‘bread box’ car design of the time and Brancusi’s high modernist sculpture.

So where is the contemporary George Barris? Where are the gods of the new religion of mobile phone form? A google search for ‘customising mobile phones’ throws up a series of commercial businesses marketing the manufacturer-endorsed customisation of covers, ringtones and wallpapers. Instead of demi-monde of hands-on manipulation of form, mobile phone ‘customisation’ is merely the act of choosing between a series of already existing options – a multiple choice quiz instead of a toolbox and workshop.

Perhaps customisation now only exists at the level of content, not form. The vernacular languages that have emerged around mobile culture are the shorthands of SMS abbreviations, or the slices of mobile life in photo-blogs like Hiptop Nation. But these vernacular stories are to mobile phones as road movies are to custom cars – they are the story of what the object *does* not what the object *is*.

This might partly be down to open architectures. The internal combustion engine reveals it secrets easily, and lends itself to modification, whereas the mobile phone is a sealed box of tricks in a barely ‘customisable’ shell. The true descendents of the custom car freaks are the PC Mod community, where each aspect of the PC is tuned, over-clocked, and built into aggressively styled new cases. The open architecture of PCs means that people can build functional devices that are still highly individualised expressions of their personality and tastes. Mobile phones, by comparison, are highly personal objects that only have a limited range of stylistic options.

There is obviously a gap in the market here. Mobile phone companies should be opening up the architecture of their devices, both at a software and a hardware level. Third-party innovation is not a threat, but an opportunity for your customers to tell you what they want. Having a mobile phone is a new right of passage – the moment when you start to stake out your individualism and experiment with new identities and forms. Previous generations have used cars to create wild adolescent aesthetics to symbolise this new found freedom. Mobile phones, on the other hand, are currently offering us a few paltry accessories – the equivalent of fluffy dice hanging from the rear-view mirror. If mobiles really are the new cars, manufacturers need to open up, and realise the difference between ‘customer’ and ‘customisation’.

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