Peter Skillman’s office is a mess.
To begin with, there are the trays full of competitors’ products, eviscerated. “We take ‘em apart in our team meetings,” he says. “Incredible how different they are. This was a Nokia 8290. Very few parts. It’s designed for rapid assembly. Look at this one. A Sony Cli. A mind-boggling number of tiny little parts.”
There are also lots of plastic jars filled with small metal bits. “Snap domes,” he explains. He takes one out and tapes it to my open notebook. He notes that the torque and shape of these small pieces of metal make all the difference in how a gizmo button responds to being pressed-which in turn can mean the difference between a keyboard that works for human beings and one that doesn’t. “You need that tactile feedback,” Skillman says. He is famous for running around the office asking receptionists and accountants and anyone else not associated with engineering to try the touch of his latest keyboard.
Skillman is one member of a triumvirate at Mountain View, CA-based Handspring-along with Jeff Hawkins, founder of both Palm and Handspring, and Rob Haitani, Handspring’s director of software and interface design-that is responsible for human-factors decisions. Skillman is the hardware guy. Until now Handspring has marketed Visor digital organizers, the first to come with an expansion slot for attachments like Boyle’s camera. Now the company has entered the race to provide our primary communications gadget, creating a single device-called the Treo-that combines a phone with e-mail, instant messaging and a personal organizer.
Them and everyone else. Research in Motion, for example, proposes adding an earphone and dangling microphone to the BlackBerry. Nokia’s version, the 9290 Communicator, looks like a bulky cell phone from 1995, but it opens up like an eyeglass case to reveal a handheld computer underneath, complete with a tiny qwerty keyboard. Silicon Valley startup Danger has developed the hiptop, a garage-door-opener-shaped product with a shell that’s nearly all screen on top, but which pivots open to reveal a BlackBerry-style keyboard underneath. Then there’s Handspring’s Treo.
Skillman says his team began with a design similar to those of the BlackBerry and Danger’s hiptop, with the thumb keyboard along the long side of the device. But it didn’t work. He demonstrates why: “Look, you have to turn it vertically to use it as a phone, then back again horizontally to use the keyboard,” he says. “It’s awkward. People hate it. Our first rule was that it had to be comfortable as a phone.”
Beginning with that one observation, the team threw out its original concept and settled instead on a telephone-like design that flips open vertically, with a qwerty keyboard at the bottom, along the short side, where a numbered keypad would normally be on a telephone. The keyboard lets users call people in their address books by typing the first few letters of their names. But for those who prefer to dial the old-fashioned way, some keys are also marked with numbers, as on the keypad of a conventional phone. Closed, the palm-sized Treo fits easily in one hand. It feels good, like a surf-smoothed stone you’d pick up on the beach.
But how could Handspring possibly make the keyboard small enough to fit along the short end of the device? Just as Research in Motion made its breakthrough: through meticulous attention to the keyboard design. Hence all the snap domes in Skillman’s office. It took a year to find a design that worked. “We really didn’t think a keyboard could get this small and still be easy to use,” says Skillman. “We thought people would take out their stylus and dial, and we actually had little indentations in the keys to make that easier. But it turns out people hate using the stylus. It also turns out there was a way to shrink the keyboard where it actually got easier to use. You can type with one thumb if you want.”
He hands me the Treo and I try typing with one thumb. After only a bit of fumbling I type this is easy. And it is.
The resulting product puts several useful functions together in one package and makes all those things work better than they would alone. Think of something you want to do-like e-mailing a friend or scheduling an appointment-try it, and it works. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that a fast and easy way [to connect with others] is what people want,” Haitani says. “Then observing people helps to refine how this works-for example, understanding that one-handed dialing is critical, or looking at how people use [instant] messaging.”
If gearhead Ken Pugh bought a Treo, he could thin his menagerie of devices down to just one. But can I hold it between my ear and my shoulder? Yes. I close it up. It isn’t flashy. It won’t give me full-color Web pages, or allow me to snap photos and send them to my mother instantaneously, or do any of the other things some gizmos do. But after weeks of one weird-gizmo demonstration after another, I want this one.
If a device like the Treo meets our communications needs, what about the need for a content-rich gadget that holds our files and our entertainment as we move from place to place? Perhaps the device that best captures the wave of the future today is Apple’s iPod: a music player first of all, but with a five-gigabyte hard drive that early adopters are already using to carry along copies of their home hard drives, so that any Apple computer can be set up instantly to look like their own machines. Other makers of digital devices are following suit, adding storage and memory to digital cameras and MP3 players and improving short-range wireless connectivity so that these devices can easily grab content to go from their owners’ personal computers-in effect, creating a convenient way for consumers to carry their digital worlds around with them.