In some parts of the Helio offices, the floors are bare sealed concrete. One wall sports a pink mural featuring some of the company’s brand icons, especially the “Helions.” They look a bit like a pair of male and female bathroom-door symbols holding hands, and their heads consist of Helio’s stylized flame logo. Helions appear in the mural as part of a tableau that includes elements of anime cartoons and psychedelia. In a break room, a pair of plastic guitars for the game Guitar Hero await contestants. (“Do you play?” Dayton asks.) Three days before I arrived, the Ocean had had its trade-show debut. The staff was still basking in the enthusiasm it had sparked, including some reviews that likened it to Apple’s much-praised iPhone. (One even suggested that the Ocean might be an “iPhone spoiler.” The notion was speculative, since neither device is yet available.)
Before the Ocean was unveiled, Helio had already made its mark with a series of social-networking milestones: earlier devices had been the first equipped with GPS-enabled Google Maps, to direct you to the bar where your friends have gone, and the first to become mobile outposts of MySpace, the better to upload your drunken photos. The goal for the Ocean was to be the best at all these things and more–messaging, picture messaging, Web searching, gaming, telephony, point-and-shoot photography–without compromising on anything. Connecting to one’s friends was the organizing principle.
But pursuing that goal produced what Matias Duarte, Helio’s vice president for experience design, calls a “critical conflict of requirements.” In particular, to be the best e-mailing, instant-messaging, and Web-searching device, the Ocean needed the roomiest possible horizontal version of the full QWERTY keyboard. But to be the best phone, it would require a vertical orientation. Reconciling these and other requirements would force an early decision on form. Clamshell? Swiveling mechanism? Slide-out keypad?
The first glint of an answer came, unsurprisingly, from Korea, where mobile communications are a cultural obsession. In Korea, people play mobile karaoke. Teens flock to sports arenas to watch other teens play in video-game contests. And today, a fair number of Korean electronics wunderkinds work at Helio. Dayton calls one of them “Joe Kool–with a K.” Joe Kool is, in fact, Jungyong Lee. Lee, a senior product-planning manager, used to work at SK Telecom. (Some previous Helio models were built by SK Telecom’s frequent manufacturing partner, Samsung.) While at SK, he conceived of something novel: a mobile communications device with two slide-out control panels. When the gadget was being used as a phone, a number keypad popped out of the bottom. When it was being used as a music player, you rotated it 90 degrees and slid out a small control panel with the familiar buttons–Play/Pause, Forward, Back, Stop. “Nowadays we converge the music device with the phone,” Lee says in the Helio break room. “Many keys will be needed. But we need to make it simple. So we need to hide the keys.”