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What makes a phone “cool,” anyway?

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Last week I wrote that Apple had lost its cool and made some suggestions on what the company might do to get it back, which got me thinking: If Apple isn’t cool anymore what is? Samsung is making the push with their Galaxy S4, HTC has a play with the One and their Facebook phone the First, Nokia’s 920 gets some interest, Blackberry is back in the game, but … are any of these actually cool?


First, like beauty, cool is in the eye of the beholder; what might be cool to me may not be cool to you. Let’s go to Wikipedia, which says cool is:

“An admired aesthetic of attitude, behavior, comportment, appearance and style, influenced by and a product of the Zeitgeist. Because of the varied and changing connotations of cool, as well its subjective nature, the word has no single meaning. It has associations of composure and self-control (cf. the OED definition) and often is used as an expression of admiration or approval. Although commonly regarded as slang, it is widely used among disparate social groups, and has endured in usage for generations.”

To me, Cool means something we admire or envy if someone else has it. A Toyota Camry isn’t cool, a Scion BRZ is; Porsche is Cool, Citroen not so much (even though the hero in the Mentalist drives one).

Cool differs by sex. For instance at a car show I recently attended, guys found the new McLaren cool; but, given the crowd they made around it, women clearly preferred the ’56 Corvette. I do think for something to be cool it has to be just a little unique. If everyone has one I’m not sure it qualifies as cool. The Miata was really cool at first, then we were up to our armpits in them and they just didn’t seem cool anymore. I think this is what happened to the iPhone – folks in Walmart have them and the mental image of Walmart customer pretty much is a cool killer.

Nokia 920

Nokia Lumia 920 press imageI think this phone could be cool. It is relatively exclusive, it is very pretty to look at, it is large but not too large and it has some stand-out features like the best camera in market and inductive charging. It is kind of a technology showcase. It’s also one of the phones I live to carry and I get “oh wow, what is that” almost every time I pull the phone out. However, the Windows brand seems to turn folks off when I tell them what it is. I personally love the phone but I have to admit while it ticks all the technical boxes, the Windows brand,

Blackberry Z10

BlackBerry Z10 VerizonIt looks like a black iPhone and it is kind of fun to pull it out and pretend it’sthe iPhone 5S. The brand has a loyal following, a brand new OS, and an improved UI. Blackberry even one-upped Microsoft’s considerable celebrity endorsement army by taking a legitimately cool musician – Alicia Keys – and making her not just the focus of an ad campaign, but the brand’s Creative Director. But Keys hasn’t had the impact that the Blackberry folks hoped she would, and I think the phone looks too much like a black iPhone to truly stand out. The Q10, which is the keyboard model, has a retro feel to it and I think it could trend better because it is more unique. It will be released shortly and will interesting to see if, by going the opposite direction of every other smartphone manufacturer with its physical keyboard, it has a cool factor.

Samsung S4 or Galaxy Note II

samsung galaxy s4The Galaxy Note II is in market and the Samsung S4 is coming next month. The S4 is a technology showcase but many of the reviews have indicated much of this technology doesn’t work well. It is starting to remind me a little of the Ford Edsel (which had a ton of technology but initially had rather bad reliability issues). The Note II, which isn’t as advanced but actually works well, has a ton of potential and leads the mass market in the over 5” category. I do notice when someone takes it out it gets a lot of attention and a bit of envy; the big screen is very easy to read and the phone is better at acting like a tablet than its smaller siblings. However it’s been out for six months already and I haven’t seen any celebrities endorsing it or carrying it, which suggetss an improved S4 as the better candidate for the next cool phone.

The iPhone 5S or 6

If it weren’t for the Walmart connection, I’d think Apple has a strong shot at regaining the title of world’s coolest phone. But even if that weren’t torpedoing the brand in the minds of many (myself included), a simple refresh of the iPhone 5 isn’t going to be enough – not with all the competition we’ve seen. If Steve Jobs were still running Apple, I’d like their chances better, but I increasingly doubt that Tim Cook has what it takes to recapture Apple’s cool.

What do you think? Is there a phone out there, which you think stands out as cool? Is there one in the pipeline that you’re excited about? I’d say the S4 has the inside track, but maybe you disagree?

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Rob Enderle
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Rob is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. Before…
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