Why I Think Posture Makes the iPad Different

Of all the images to come out of the iPad announcement, the one struck me the most was less about the device and more about the experience of it:

iPad in Lounging Position
iPad in Lounging Position

Lying back on the sofa — isn’t that a nice way to be?

And sitting or lying on the sofa with a 9.7 inch screen means we’ll typically hold this about 2 feet (.6 meter) away from our eyes, versus 1 foot with an iPhone, which means you can rest it on your lap. While some may buy the dock, putting the iPad on a surface means having to uncomfortably lean over it. I think lounging will be much more common. We can do this with a laptop, but the separation of output (display) and input (keyboard and trackpad) is disjointed in comparison. And the iPad will be a little awkward and heavy to hold aloft like a phone.

Consequently the mood while interacting with an iPad may be more relaxed. The interaction has the potential to be more passive, though not necessarily. We’ll make bigger gestures and pivot at the elbow and shoulder rather than the wrist. We’ll scroll/size less than on a phone, using more eye movement to scan the screen. And while Apple has had to succumb to menus to make more functions available, we have the potential for powerful new forms of direct manipulation.

As a designer I’m tempted to display more, denser visual content at one time that a person can sit back and absorb, and offer control with fewer, grander gestures.

Given the physical similarity, it’s tempting to look at the iPad and call it a big iPhone. But I think the posture we adopt and interaction with the device will make it an experience unlike a phone or a laptop.

Aside: how long until someone designs a lounge chair specifically for optimal iPad use?!

Presentation Hardware: Tiny USB Speakers

I’m learning the hard way that presenting concepts may mean giving them to someone else to show on an unknown laptop across the world somewhere. I can control for many factors by simply making a video of my design concept, with voice over. But that laptop won’t get the audio loud enough, and no one ever has a cable to plug into a projector’s speaker.

We need speakers.

Here’s what I would like in my show-off-my-design-concept speakers:

  1. Tiny, tiny enough to fit in a laptop bag
  2. Powered by USB so there are no extra cables or batteries to worry about
  3. Great looks
  4. Decent sound, at least good for speech

Here’s a few candidates:

IDEO’s Open Dev of the BugBase Hardware/Software UI

It’s not often we get to peek inside anyone’s concept design process, so this blog from IDEO has me starting up my reverse-engineering machine….

An open project between BugLabs and IDEO, this deep-dive exploration of the BUGbase UI is focused on re-envisioning the BUGbase interface with an eye toward integrating new display and input technologies.

The outcome of these explorations will feel less like a finished product and more like a concept car. And like any successful concept car, we hope these provocations will not only help us gauge users’ interests, but will spur constructive discourse and inform future design, engineering, and business decisions.

BugLabs’ commitment to openness presents a unique and exciting opportunity for us to be as inclusive about the design process as possible. For this quick two week collaboration, we will be conceptualizing new interface paradigms, designing new tangible user interface directions, and creating the associated industrial design/housing-modification solutions.

A Quantified Value of the iPod Design

This study — Who Captures Value in a Global Innovation System? The case of Apple’s iPod — is one of the best I’ve heard of in a long time. The researchers traced the parts and assembly of the iPod and attributed the value generated by each step by part and by country. A few key stats: of a $299 video iPod, Apple gets the largest piece of the pie: $80. The other portions are relatively small; China only gets $4 for assembly.

Hal Varian of the New York Times made this key observation about how Apple’s capabilities generate their benefits:

The real value of the iPod doesn’t lie in its parts or even in putting those parts together. The bulk of the iPod’s value is in the conception and design of the iPod. That is why Apple gets $80 for each of these video iPods it sells, which is by far the largest piece of value added in the entire supply chain.

Those clever folks at Apple figured out how to combine 451 mostly generic parts into a valuable product. They may not make the iPod, but they created it. In the end, that’s what really matters.

I’m encouraged by studies that highlight the value of concept design given my work in this area. Here’s a question for you: how would you most like to learn more about concept design: a book? videos? something else?

1 000 000 000 000 Bytes, In My Pocket

Moore’s Law is alive and well I confirmed recently while shopping for an external hard drive. You can now buy a name brand 1TB (terabyte, or 1000 gigabytes) drive for about $400. That’s 40 cents per gig. I can remember when under $10/MB was pretty good.

Categorized as Hardware

Hardware companies will learn to be software companies

In the past I’ve observed that as processor speed increases, software replaces dedicated hardware. For example, in music or video production programs like GarageBand and Final Cut Pro and a stock Macintosh can replace dedicated rack systems and DSP chips.

Now with Web 2.0-ish advances on the Internet, we can go further and say as bandwidth increases, remote applications replace locally installed applications.

Yamaha has developed a beautiful prototype of a device that “allows everyone to play music intuitively.” But the simplicity of the user interface begs the question of why isn’t it implemented in software (i.e. why can’t I get my hands on this now?). I know the obvious answers, and I appreciate a great hardware UI and portability, but believe we’ll only gain more utility from network-based software applications as people adopt them. It makes even more sense when you see someone make something that looks similar and is a lot of fun, like Ollie Rankin’s Ten or Eleven (imagine this on a tablet PC).

Race to the $100 Laptop

kids outside holding laptops over their heads

I’m seeing two different approaches to the $100 laptop. MIT is starting from scratch and — as you would guess — focusing on technology to simplify the current platform:

…we will get the fat out of the systems. Today’s laptops have become obese. Two-thirds of their software is used to manage the other third, which mostly does the same functions nine different ways.

Dell aims to get there by — as you would guess — pushing the limits of operational efficiency. Dell currently sells a laptop for $560 and a desktop for $299, so the $100 price point isn’t that far away.

In both cases, an organization is using a core competency to achieve a goal. But in both cases I wonder if the edge competencies are reversed. It seems the actual costs of Dell’s computers are pretty low and some ruthless efficiency in (MIT’s goal of) getting them distributed to children in developing countries is needed. On the other hand, we all suffer from needlessly complex laptops and MIT’s work should be championed by Dell.

Categorized as Hardware

Distributed processing on a chip

Details are emerging on IBM’s “supercomputer on a chip”, which essentially seems to take the logic that distributes operations to multiple chips that used to be done in applications or the operating system and integrate it at the chip level. This has the potential to exponentially speed up everything that’s not already a supercomputer, as software doesn’t have to change to accommodate more than one processor per machine.

From a design perspective, we could think of this as a process innovation rather than one of hardware engineering, as the advantage was gained by taking work from one stage of the system and moving it to another stage.

WiMAX vs. Hi-Gain

While microwave-powered WiMAX is getting more attention these days, I was fascinated to learn on Thanksgiving of a relative’s plan to simply use a hi-gain setup instead. His plan is to go to markets that don’t already have wired broadband internet access — in his case rural Virginia — and put hi-gain antennas on the hills to reach those who don’t have access to cable or DSL. The market may not be as profitable, but the equipment and real estate costs are proportionately low. It’s a disruptive move, and there might be plenty of room at the bottom of that pyramid.

Drive + Mouse

IOGEAR put 64MB of RAM into a mouse. Now that’s smart convergence: take two devices that already plug into the same port and that you have to carry around with your laptop, and combine them, taking advantage of all that hollow space inside the mouse.

There’s still a challenge to help customers form a mental model of it: “You see, it’s a mouse, but you can also save your files on it.” The name helps: “Memory Mouse”. You could go further and make something about the form factor resemble a drive (do people even have a concept of what a drive looks like?).

(And if you start to think too hard, it just gets too weird: “You use the mouse to control the cursor to drag and drop files onto a desktop-mounted drive, the effect of which copies files onto the drive that is inside the mouse…”)

It’s a similar problem with the similarly convergent AirPort Express with AirTunes (sans the elegant name). It took me about 15 minutes to understand what it does, and it only really clicked when I saw the “living room” diagram on page 24 of the Tech Overview (PDF). “You see, it’s a wireless base station like the AirPort, but it can also relay music from your computer into your stereo. Oh, and it’ll let you share your USB printer…” I understand what is inside the thing, but even that would’ve made me raise an eyebrow: “It’s a wireless router, audio digital to analog converter, and USB interface in a little device that plugs into your wall.”

As stuff gets smaller, we’re only going to get more devices like this, and we’ll need to work harder to help people understand them.

Amazing Internet Phone Service

I recently signed up for Vonage, an Internet phone service in the US and Canada, and love it. Also known as Voice over IP, it uses your Internet connection rather than a phone line to connect. Here’s some highlights of why I like it:

  • Cost: By far the best reason to switch is the savings. My wife and I don’t use the phone much, but we have family in Canada and Germany and these calls were expensive. Our bills averaged US$95, and now they average $25. We have the 500 minute plan for $15 and calls to Germany are only $.03/minute. They also have unlimited US/Canada plans for $30.
  • Easy to set up: they mail you a device that gets plugged in between your computer and your Internet connection. Then you plug your normal phone into the device. Done. The computer doesn’t need to be turned on or even plugged in.
  • Same phone number: Vonage can transfer your current number to their system, so I kept my precious 212 Manhattan area code.
  • Features: Their website records all information in real-time, so I can use it as caller ID, listen to voicemail, manage features, and view current activity as well as all the usual billing info.
  • Networked: Just as you might plug into the Internet from anywhere using your laptop, you can do the same with the Vonage device. So if I’m on a business trip I can bring the device to a hotel and use it with their Internet connection.

Their customer website is well designed and their customer service is responsive. I’m so psyched to find a company who is doing things right I’m recommending them here. If you’re considering signing up I can refer you and you’ll get a month free (and I’ll get a credit too), just email me at victor (at) victorlombardi.com.

Categorized as Hardware

Biometric approaches the chasm

The fingerprint biometric device for $49 was inevitable, I’m just surprised it arrived this soon (should we thank the demand generated by the Dept. of Homeland Security for the accelated development?). I predict within two years someone will build this into a laptop, sitting beside the trackpad.

Update: Josh points out that fingerprint biometrics are already included in the $650 HP iPAQ Pocket PC h5550, probably aimed at corporate customers. At this price point, inclusion on a consumer laptop will be probably happen sooner than two years.

Categorized as Hardware

Current Mobile Platforms

I’m working on a project where I can influence the platform used, a rare opportunity. So I’ve been researching some of the current mobile platforms I didn’t know much about…

Ultra-personal computers: OQO is working on a full-powered PC – including Wi-Fi – that will fit in your pocket. Also see IBM’s Meta Pad. Nice when you need all that power and portability, but is that power usable with the small screen? I think we’re seeing computers whose raw performance has outpaced the input/output potential. We need goggles and 3D force-feedback haptic devices to replace our screens and mice.

Tablet PC: a Microsoft-backed platform, basically a laptop with a screen that will fold down and become a touch-sensitive tablet. Considering how low laptop prices could go, this could easily replace the mythical web tablet. But as a PC, will the pen-based computing (itself a moniker of failure) be useful with something other than simplified PDA-like apps?

Mira: Even more likely to become your web tablet, imagine taking your flat screen monitor off its dock and bringing it to another room while it wirelessly communicates with the desktop setup.

And of course there’s Pocket PCs and Palms, which don’t seem as attractive for custom apps due to the limited compatibility with other platforms.

All of the above are non-Apple platforms. Let’s hope the folks in Cupertino have something up their sleeve to follow up the G4 Laptop, they usually do.

Categorized as Hardware

Powermate Volume Knob

Last year I wished aloud for a hardware volume knob for my Mac. Griffin Tech has released what may be the coolest volume knob ever, essentially a function-assignable rotary USB controller. The Wired article has more. Links courtesy Jerry Kindall.

Combining the Powermate’s software with the Oxygen 8‘s USB controls could result in a whole new interface into multimedia authoring.