Smartphones should be more colourful

Nokia's new Lumia 820 and 920 come in blaring yellow, lurid red, and deep purple among other colours (though the latter is the 820 only). They're gorgeous. They stand out, and hopefully other manufacturers will follow the trend of liberating us from the dull march of black slabs.

When I first started reviewing phones in 2004, colour and shape were a big part of the smartphone experience. Phones are personal, public objects; they're part of how we present ourselves to the world, just as much as our clothing and hairstyles. I'm in a room of 20 tech journalists right now – we're about as similar a bunch of guys (and one gal) as you can get, but we don't dress alike. One guy has a faux-hawk. One guy has a brown hat. I'm wearing a shiny Japanese shirt. So why should our smartphones all look the same?

Part of the problem was the industry-wide move to slab-style phones, which offer very few visual cues to differentiate themselves. The slab shape is functional. With touch interfaces ruling the day, the largest touch screen wins. (Hello, Samsung Galaxy Note). But designers didn't have to give up at that point. They didn't have to go all black and white.

I recently spoke to a designer who offered an interesting theory, namely that the crash in coloured phones came just as two things happened: The global economy tanked, and the market began to switch to smartphones. Having a smartphone became a differentiator, and in a tough economy people wanted devices that looked useful and conservative. So black and white smartphones ruled the day.

An endless line of dull black smartphones is also easier for carriers to stock and sell. When you have multiple colours, you have to manage store supplies of the more and less popular colours, especially if one colour becomes an unexpected hit. It's an inventory management headache.

Smartphones are gobbling up the mobile market in the UK, with half of it now snaffled, not to mention the US and elsewhere across the globe. And with so many folks owning them, people would like to start being able to tell them apart. As the Apple-Samsung jury said, to uneducated eyes every slab phone can look alike. We're still in an economic slump, which will pull against daring designs and creative colours. But the desire of humans for fashion, something that's marked our species for thousands of years, will hopefully win out.

Replaceable shells or cases can be one solution to the inventory management issue and to phone owners wanting a dramatic colour for personal use, but a more conservative shade for work. I'm happy to see that Nokia is going with replaceable shells on the Lumia 820.

Nokia led in returning colour to our pockets with the blue Lumia 900, but the trend didn't quite take hold earlier this year. Hopefully, the new colourful Lumias will really get things rolling.

So bring on the yellow, red, blue and purple phones. Nokia has a great idea here. I hope others will follow.

Incidentally, if you want to read up more on the new Lumia 920 and 820, check out our first impressions of the handsets here.