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How Apple won – and Android lost – the notch war

It was roundly criticised when it was introduced about two years ago. And then it was promptly adopted and taken to phone-y hearts, so much so that its shape and size became almost a feature of the device. And just as it settled in, people started talking of ways of getting rid of it, once again invoking a whole number of mechanisms and design tweaks. Meanwhile the brand that had made it (in)famous simply carried on, unaffected.  

iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max

I am talking of the notch. It came into our tech lives in 2017, initially through the Essential Phone and then more famously through the iPhone X. After hammering it and making fun of it, everyone and their grandmother proceeded to copy it thoroughly, in best Apple tradition. It began with a simple copy, with the notch placed in the centre of the display, and then proceeded to take on a life of its own, with smaller notches, called drop notches, notches in the corners with the display around them called punch hole notches. And after highlighting these notch-able changes, the brands want crazy trying to get rid of it – using slide out, revolving and pop up camera units of different shapes and sizes.

And even as all this was happening, the brand that made the notch famous, Apple, simply carried on unfazed. We have been seeing leaks of the next iPhone and as far as we can see, there is no attempt to remove the notch at all. If anything, going by what we have heard, the notch that almost every Android manufacturer seems so determined to avoid now, is actually going to get even more features, with perhaps even more sensors being placed in it. 

Sounds a bit ridiculous, doesn’t it? Android players spent – and are still spending, actually – a small fortune (displays are very expensive) on something that they first made fun of and then tried to adopt and tweak and then abandon (I am repeating this just to stress how amazing it has all been). Apple, on the other hand, simply focused on adding more features to it. Today, the notch still exists in the iOS world, even while Android tries to make up its mind about it. At the time of writing, most high end Android devices seem to have switched to pop-up camera mode to dodge the notch, but most mid and lower segment smartphones are still in notch mode, In essence, Android players are spending a lot manufacturing different displays and tweaking resolutions and UIs even as Apple carries on relatively unfettered by these issues.

In essence, Apple has won the notch war. It dragged Android off course totally with the notch design and while it itself made no changes, its competition ended up waging war against each over the shape, size and ways of avoiding the notch, even while it itself had a clear vision of what it wanted to do with it.

And the reason for Apple’s victory is simple – for the Cupertino company, the notch was all about functionality while for its Android rivals, it increasingly was about form.

Apple introduced the notch in the iPhone X, not to trim display bezels, as many believed but actually to provide a secure face unlock option to its users. Yes, the removal of the bulky home button did end up giving one much more display on the phone, but from what I have heard from my sources, that was just a “happy coincidence” – the real aim of the notch was to get face unlock, as Apple tried to make the iPhone more secure. Interestingly, almost two years after it was launched, the iPhone X series remains the only high profile device range to rely totally on face unlock for security – most Android players have brought in face unlock but have not let go of the fingerprint scanner, although a number have moved it below the display. As a sidenote, it seems Apple did consider moving the fingerprint scanner below the display but decided against it as its team deemed the face unlock feature to be way more secure.

 

For most Android manufacturers, however, the notch was really about the selfie camera and the earpiece, and of course, it was a bezel-trimmer, giving them screen to body ratio boasting rights. And I suspect this totally made them take their eyes off the potential of face unlock. Android till the time of writing did not have a very secure face unlock, and although a few manufacturers like Xiaomi with the Poco F1, did try to make face unlock faster and more reliable, the vast majority preferred to simply work on notch shapes and sizes. While Apple was simply working away at making Face Unlock better (it implemented one without a notch on the iPad Pro, letting you unlock the iPad in portrait or landscape mode), Android players were busy trying to get 90 per cent and above in the screen to body ratio exam, and make the pop up camera a style statement. Xiaomi put lights on its pop up camera, OPPO changed its shape to a “shark fin” and well…I am sure someone will come out with some other touch in the coming days. And as all this happens, face unlock on Android remains largely less than secure.

The result: two years after its introduction, there are no signs that the iPhone notch will go away – if anything, it seems set to add more to the iPhone experience. Meanwhile, Android pretty much seems to have missed the secure face ID bus thus far, and has reduced the notch to a selfie snapping fashion statement. The irony is that even as Android manufacturers are trying to get rid of the notch, the signs are Google is bringing a big one to the next Pixel, and this time, it will have a number of sensors and will deliver secure face ID and a lot of other information besides. How other manufactures react to this will be interesting – it could well trigger off a second round of notch wars (fitting the number of sensors we have seen on the Pixel on a slide out or pop up unit might be difficult initially).

I wouldn’t mind it if that happens, actually. For if it does happen, the second round of the notch wars would be about what the notch delivers rather than what it looks like. It would be about substance, not style. Functionality, about form.

It would be about design in the real sense. As Steve Jobs so famously said:

“Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer – that the designers are handed this box and told, “Make it look good!” That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

In the notch wars, Android perhaps made the error of thinking design is what a notch looks like. It tried to make the notch look good, or fade into the background.

Apple made the notch work.

And won.

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Nimish Dubey

Nimish Dubey has been writing on technology since 1999. He has contributed to a number of publications and websites including The Times of India, Hindustan Times, Mint, Economic Times, Outlook, and India Today. He is currently the Editorial Mentor at TechPP.com and a regular contributor to Indian Express. When not writing, he loves to read and listen to classic rock.