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Notch games: Forget the form, add functions

“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like

Design is how it works…”

Those were the words of Steve Jobs. And well, I cannot help but be reminded of them when I see the deluge of notches on smartphones. For, if you were to believe the brands behind these devices, what seems to matter most to them is the form of the notch, rather than what it does. It is almost as if having a dew/tear/rain/water/whatever drop-shaped or a punched/pin/dot hole-shaped notch is what’s important.

Design for them, clearly is what the notch looks like and feels like.

Photo by Youssef Sarhan on Unsplash

Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with that. There is something to be said for aesthetics. But one cannot help but notice the irony that the notch actually came into our lives also because of what it did rather than as eye candy. The company guilty of inflicting the notch on us, of course, was Apple, which introduced it with the iPhone X in 2017. A number of experts at that time surmised that the notch was introduced to enable Apple to provide its own version of an edge to edge, relatively bezel-free display. While that definitely was a factor, what a lot of people conveniently forgot that the notch also housed a large number of sensors – yes, they made it look a little ugly and ungainly at times (I have kind of got used to it), but the stark fact is that Apple did not place a notch on the iPhone X purely to make it look good. The notch on the iPhone X had a clear function – to enable Face ID, and to enable it with a level of security that would match the security measure it was replacing, the fingerprint scanner. And for all the talk about twins being able to fool Face ID, the simple fact is that most people using iPhones with face unlock have generally had a smooth experience with it, with the user’s face being used not to just unlock the phone but also for financial transactions, app purchases and so on.

Now, contrast that with the notch experience on Android phones, if you will. We have several notch shapes and sizes (and perhaps a few more to come if the leaks of the Galaxy S10 are any indication) but face unlock on the platform remains incredibly insecure – far too many can be fooled by a good portrait photograph or a video. Which is of course the reason why almost all Android devices even now are coming with fingerprint sensors as well as face unlock options, and almost all of them recommend using fingerprint sensors for transactions. Some devices even warn you that face unlock is not very secure even while setting it up.  

As per one of my sources, one of the reasons for face unlock on Android devices often not being very secure is the manufacturers’ obsession to keep the notch as small as possible. This limits the amount of information the device can pick up from the front camera for the face unlock – the iPhone X and its successors have an infrared camera and a few other sensors for Face ID because the notch has space for them. A device like the Honor View 20 might boast of a punch hole notch which might look different but all if can contain (thanks to its size restriction) is the front camera. Which means less data and in most cases, a slightly less secure face unlock. Which is why it still needs a fingerprint sensor. Yes, even as Apple has ditched the fingerprint sensor altogether, other manufacturers are simply trying to find new places for it (such as below the display, on the sides and so on). 

Today, notches are the rule rather than the exception in the mid and top segment, and judging by the launch of the new Cool 3 from Coolpad (priced at Rs 5,999), are already making their way into entry level smartphones too. However, it is not clear what purpose they are actually serving in the Android world. Face ID remains unreliable (the Galaxy M10 actually warns us that it can be fooled by a picture or a video and does not even have a fingerprint sensor – go figure) and the notch really seems something for press releases and marketing. People have been talking of making it look different and even getting rid of it and finding ways around it – sliding rear panels, pop up cameras and so on – but no one actually seems to be looking at getting some functionality out of the notch.

Apple on the other hand has managed to do just that. And if my sources are any indication, the notch’s size on the iPhone is not likely to change in the coming days. If anything, the sensors on it might increase, allowing the iPhone to swap more meaningful data with the Apple Watch and perhaps even the next generation of AirPods. The notch on the iPhone started out as something to facilitate face unlock and grab more screen space, but could graduate to being a health and fitness data collector. On other phones, it just seems to be changing shape and size. That’s the equivalent of trying to clear your examinations by powdering your face and putting on aftershave, even while your completion burns the midnight oil studying.

To repeat, Steve Jobs said, “design is how it works.”

Steve Jobs was from Apple. Figures. For everyone else, it just seems like a design touch!

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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.