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What if smartphone design still matters?

Over the past three years, the actual look of a smartphone has stopped mattering. Apple’s (AAPL) most recent iPhones brought only the slightest changes in the device’s appearance. Samsung’s (005930) new Windows Phone looks almost exactly like its Android phones – which look dangerously like iPhones. No change, no novelty – just a series of black or white, slightly rounded boxes.

Nokia’s (NOK) new Windows Phone push is an attempt to introduce radical change even though there is a valid reason to be suspicious about whether the shape and color of a phone matter. After all, the iPhone 4S and Galaxy S III turned into the biggest blockbusters the smartphone industry has ever witnessed without any design innovation. Consumers simply did not care about the wrappings — what mattered was the display quality improvement, software, processing power and camera quality.

But just because consumers have not shown any signs of caring about design between 2009 and 2012 does not mean they are not growing bored following this period of stasis. After all, this has been a highly unusual phase in the handset industry history. From 1994 to 2009, innovation involving shape, color and finish of the handset chassis often played a crucial role in shaping consumer desire. Could Nokia be onto something with the provocatively candy-colored Lumia phones that feature totally new silhouettes?

Of course, the industry is no longer as hardware-driven as it used to be. Consumers are far more engaged in app selection and UI finesse than they used to be. But the recent period of absolute design monotony just might crack open the door for radically different smartphones trying to claw market via new look and feel.

Compare Nokia’s Lumia phones to Samsung ATIV S announced earlier this week. Which looks fresher?

Arguably, the first mass-market “design phone” was the Motorola Microtac 9800X, which in 1989 revolutionized the analog phone market thanks to its tiny size. Weighing just 12 ounces, it was Motorola’s first miniature phone and was far lighter than rival devices. It competed on looks, not performance.

The Nokia 2110 shocked and tantalized consumers in 1994 with its svelte build. The antenna was petite compared to rival models, giving the 2110 a streamlined look. It’s the phone that started undermining Motorola’s seemingly absolute mobile handset hegemony.

In 1997, Ericsson introduced exchangeable front panels and a range of colors to cheap, youth-oriented handsets. The GA 628 sold surprisingly well considering it featured old-fashioned stub-antennas and tiny displays. This was the range that proved vendors could create a hit phone simply by varying colors and providing customization — even with mediocre hardware.

The Nokia 3210 was a massive hit among teenagers and women in 1999. The internal antenna meant that there was no stub to tangle with handbag contents (a crucial bit of feedback Nokia received from its focus group testing). The phone was nearly ovoid, creating a sharp design contrast compared to boxy and angular Motorola and Ericsson devices.

In 2004, then-struggling Motorola staged a big comeback with the RAZR phone. The handset was a mess regarding UI and battery performance, but it was 30% thinner than rival phones. Its unique silhouette drove Motorola’s market share up sharply for two years before the craze faded.

What is interesting about the RAZR phenomenon is that it raged for two years from 2004 to 2006 and then consumers suddenly grew tired of the design. Motorola was so convinced that RAZR demand would remain evergreen that it did not aggressively develop any other designs. This, of course, led to the violent collapse of Motorola in 2007 and 2008.

Most iPhone fans get locked into the Apple software universe and they are unlikely to ever stray. But the new Lumia devices have a shot at picking off disgruntled Android and BlackBerry fans as well as feature phone diehards who have resisted taking the plunge to smartphone world.

After launching mobile game company SpringToys tragically early in 2000, Tero Kuittinen spent eight years doing equity research at firms including Alliance Capital and Opstock. He is currently an analyst and VP of North American sales at mobile diagnostics and expense management Alekstra, and has contributed to, Forbes and Business 2.0 Magazine in addition to BGR.