Rhodri Marsden: Why are we so obsessed with pimping our gadgets?

Cyberclinic
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The Independent Tech

Vodafone, in a gesture of supreme generosity, are now offering customers a service called FlipFont: the ability to change the system font on mobile phones in exchange for £1.99 of hard-earned cash. It's an ingenious money-making scheme, because it panders to that compulsion we have to personalise and customise our phones and computers with new graphics and sounds, despite their looking and sounding far better when they were switched on for the first time.

The aesthetic quality of any computer, gadget or website has an inverse correlation with the amount of freedom we're given to mess around with it. For example, the prize for the most unattractive MySpace page is unintentionally and fiercely fought over, but the one at myspace.com/soybuddha – clearly created in a deliberate effort to bulldoze the barriers of taste and decency – is a good example of how bad things can get when we have a free rein. But you can't embed pictures of Paris Hilton on Facebook, or indeed tinny midi-files from 'The Phantom of the Opera', and Facebook's all the better for it.

Most of us have tried to stamp our identity on technology in the same way we once scrawled on pencil cases with ballpoint pens. I've certainly been through that phase of incessantly tweaking computers: utilities to change the system font, daily-changing background pictures, customising icons, aural shards of post-punk guitar whenever the CD tray ejected – you name it, I tried it.

But I like to think that those years of experimentation flushed the customisation bug out of my system, to a point where today I keep things incredibly simple, some might say dull. I guess I've come to the incredibly profound conclusion that highly paid designers have more artistic flair than I do, and they've probably thought longer and harder about the way it should look than I have.

Of course, it helps if the system you're using looks good in the first place; it's notable that the screens of the iPhone and the new T-Mobile/Google G1 are masterpieces of design, with perfect font-rendering that only those who massively overestimate their own design skills would try to improve. On the other hand, if I owned a Motorola RAZR, I'd probably leap at the chance to try to rectify the hideous spectacle that confronted me every time I flipped the thing open.



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