In a mobile gadget, design is not simply a matter of physical form. The interface, too, should be simple. Helio’s goal for the Ocean was to allow a user to grab the device in its idle mode and type a few letters of an address-book entry, a message to a friend, or a Web-search keyword. The high concept: all your e-mail accounts, instant-messaging accounts, text messages, and picture messages would be accessible through one integrated interface.
This required negotiations with the companies–Yahoo, AOL, Microsoft, Google–whose e-mail programs (including Hotmail, Gmail, and Outlook) the Ocean would adapt, so that users wouldn’t have to close one program to open another. “This is an experience you can’t even get on the desktop,” brags Duarte. “We had to build it all from scratch and have intense negotiations with partners, because they are all closed platforms.”
The Ocean’s designers also sought the easiest possible way to let users reach other people or search the Web. Typing a few letters will bring up your list of contacts: hitting P takes you to “Paul Smith,” “Joe Parker,” and so forth. Nothing novel there. But then came an idea: why not make this work for search terms, too? If you keep typing until your string of letters no longer matches a name in your contact list, it becomes a search term. Type in “pizza,” hit Enter, and unless you have a friend named Pizza, you are now searching for pizzerias without even opening a Web browser.
Wonhee Sull, Helio’s mild-mannered president and chief operating officer and another veteran of SK Telecom, is very proud of this feature, called modeless search. “When mobile devices came to realization, [companies building them] used the PC as a platform reference,” Sull says. “They just tried to shrink their version of a PC application and plug it into a mobile device. That didn’t work. It is a small screen. We wanted to give them the answer they want right away, rather than routing them through the whole thing. We didn’t take the PC as a reference point. We started with ‘What do people want to do with a mobile device?’”
The Ocean still cannot be all things to all people. Like many other mobile devices that aren’t iPods, it cannot play copy-protected music purchased through Apple’s iTunes. But this wall is coming down. Apple and EMI Music recently reached an agreement to give iTunes customers the option of paying more for EMI songs that can be copied to other devices. Apple CEO Steve Jobs says this option will be available for half of all iTunes songs by year’s end. These more expensive audio files could be loaded and played on the Ocean. Meanwhile, the Ocean supports over-the-air music downloads (sold by Helio Music) and can play music in all formats covered by Windows Media copyright protections and sideload them to a computer.