26 October 2009


The Bang and Olufsen Serene is the anti-iPhone. Or it was before the marriage between B&O and their manufacturing partner Samsung went south.

As a design object it's polarizing and spectacular, luscious and maddening. It bucks a raft of industry trends and glides obliviously past consumer expectations: something of a Bang and Olufsen tradition. Living with a Serene day-to-day requires lot of patience as well as a willingness to abandon wholesale a lot of reasonable expectations for a mobile device.

Where to start. On my carrier in the U.S. (T-mobile) it was ultimately impossible to set up the Serene to send or retrieve email or multimedia messages, so after a long struggle I threw in the towel. Next, the experience of dialing a number –never mind pecking out a text message– on the circular keypad runs from awkward to militantly counterintuitive, depending on your patience and the length of message (note: shorter isn't just better, it may very well be all you have the time to compose). And about that circular keypad: for a company that prides itself on innovative and superior solutions, the same diabolical, hand-cramping idea was abandoned as unworkable over 40 years ago by AT&T's Bell Laboratories before reaching the market, then attempted unsuccessfully by Nokia decades later to a chorus of hoots, jeers and mountains of scorn in the marketplace. Why repeat a competitor’s failed approach?

In the end, all of this is irrelevant to a niche product like the Serene. Designed by an audio company, the Serene delivers crisp, better-than-landline-quality voice communication, but either by default or design –take your pick– it makes any other activity so grudging and onerous that the user is discouraged from even trying. Ironically, It's this distinction alone that makes the Serene the anti-iPhone. While the iPhone’s ludicrously unreliable and overextended network is seldom able to make or complete a voice call, but offers a zillion applications to keep the user distracted, the Serene offers few features beyond the ability to hold a conversation in sparkling, interruption-free clarity, and this it does exceedingly well.

I like the Serene. Closed, it looks like an anodized aluminum and black rubberized Chanel compact. The build quality is first rate, the ringtones pleasing, the audio quality second to none, and the motorized open/close function at once truly useful, beautifully executed, and geekily delightful. Of course it's feature-free, favors style at the expense of usefulness, suffers from an near total absence of any technical support in the U.S. market, and is completely overpriced. In that sense it simultaneously represents everything that's right and wrong about Bang and Olufsen and offers some insight into why the phone and the partnership that sired it failed.

1 comment:

creampuff said...

paging dr. douchebag...