The headquarters of the mobile-communications startup Helio look out over the hip Los Angeles district of Westwood. The streets are packed with teens and 20-somethings–whose business Helio covets. The company aspires to hook them on the ultimate multimedia device: something perfect for talking and messaging, gaming and Web searching, social networking and finding buddies via GPS. By the end of this quarter, Helio predicts, its year-old service, which leases space on the Sprint network, will have more than 100,000 subscribers. But the company–a joint venture between the Internet service provider EarthLink and the Korean wireless giant SK Telecom–has already burned through much of its $440 million in funding; according to a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filing, Helio lost $192 million last year. Now its hopes are pinned on its newest, most radical device, the fullest expression of its corporate ambitions: the Ocean.
The Ocean is hefty by today’s sleek standards, pill-shaped in a market of rectangular things. The company’s future will hinge on how much the intended audience appreciates those departures from conventional design. It will hinge on the layout of the device’s QWERTY keyboard. It will hinge on the simplicity of the messaging and search interface (for instance, the way it allows users to start typing from idle mode). And it will hinge on–the hinges. The Ocean (which will sell for $295, plus a monthly fee of $65 to $135 for rich-media subscriptions and varying allotments of voice minutes) sports a pair of them; operated by a novel three-way spring, they enable a keyboard to slide out from one side of the device and a numerical keypad to slide out from another.
In short, the Ocean’s design will make or break Helio. “Basically, to us, design is the product,” says Sky Dayton, the 35-year-old CEO, with the Westwood skyline framed behind him on a clear blue March afternoon. Dayton founded EarthLink at 23 and became rich by making Internet access simple. “We get up every day thinking about this,” he says. “If you go talk to the CEO or COO of one of the major carriers, I doubt you will hear much about the color of icons, the feel of the soft-touch paint. I can wax poetic about the spring-loaded action [of the sliders].” And he does: “We really thought about the movement and the sound it makes when it opens, the sound it makes when it closes. You see a mannerism when people open and close their Ocean. It’s like humming to yourself.”
The mobile-communications industry, Dayton says, has long been a “design desert” dominated by phone companies interested mainly in rounding up subscribers by the millions. But achieving great design is a growing fixation. Nokia, for example, recently hired the famed design firm Ideo–whose gadget credits include the first mass-market computer mouse, in 1981, and the Palm V PDA, in 1999–to help reinvent the gaming experience for a new line of smart phones (see Q&A). “A cell phone is becoming this incredibly powerful repository for multimedia experiences,” says Duane Bray, who heads the software experiences group at Ideo and has no connection to Helio or the Nokia project. “Design is just supercritical, because we have to understand how to sequence it–what things live together in a smart way. The Web 2.0 phenomena of social networking and sharing, converging on the cell phone–that is an interesting trajectory.” People want to use their cell phones for many things, he adds, yet “the device still has so many inherent flaws–small screen, awkward inputs.”
This is the story of how one small company wrestled with those flaws–and gave birth to a new machine.