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Handhelds of Tomorrow

Think thumb keyboards and portable hard drives–not the overhyped notions of cell phone Web browsers and “pen-based computing.”

Ken Pugh is the future.

Mr. Pugh is drinking coffee in a Starbucks in San Jose, CA. He has many gizmos hanging from his belt. A cell phone, complete with stars-and-stripes face plate. A headset for his phone. A pager. A separate wireless device with a tiny screen and thumb-sized keyboard for tapping out e-mail messages. A digital organizer. “You could call me a gearhead,” he says, with pride. “My only complaint is that I have to carry so many things.” His phone beeps. He answers it, with a bit of a flourish, as if to demonstrate his gearheadedness.

It’s a generally accepted belief-in the computer industry, at least-that it’s only a matter of time before everyone will want to be just as connected as Mr. Pugh, whom I meet while pondering our digital future over a grande mocha. In Japan gearheads are typically teenagers, known as the oyayubizoku-literally, “clan of the thumbs”-for their enthusiasm for tapping out messages to one another with their thumbs on their cell phones. Here in Silicon Valley it’s usually the business travelers, like Mr. Pugh, who are the ascendant gearheads. Electronics giants and startup ventures alike are trying to get those of us not in either category just as hooked on handheld digital devices.

But what gizmos will we really carry? Unlike the personal computer, which has had its basic design more or less set in stone for the last 20 years, gizmos are a wide-open field, where it’s not at all clear which digital things, if any, people will want to bring along in their pockets and purses. The cell phone has made strong inroads, of course-52 percent of households in the 25 largest urban markets surveyed in the United States now have at least one, according to a September 2001 J. D. Power and Associates study, and in some European countries such as Iceland and Finland the figure exceeds 75 percent. Other digital devices have made progress as well: worldwide sales of digital organizers reached an estimated 12 million units last year.

Consumers bought an estimated 6.4 million digital cameras in 2001, and they’re expected to scoop up at least three million MP3 players this year. All of these are, or promise to be, multibillion-dollar businesses. Encouraged by such statistics, some companies are offering next-generation devices that give consumers either new ways to do old things or new functions we didn’t know we needed. At last November’s Comdex, the world’s biggest trade show for consumer electronics, Bill Gates spent much of his keynote speech predicting the coming popularity of tablet-style wireless computers, which will supposedly replace today’s keyboards with pen-based computing. National Semiconductor was pushing for its all-in-one Geode Origami Mobile Communicator, a prototype that folds up into different shapes depending on its use, transforming itself into a digital camera, a digital video recorder, a videoconferencing terminal, an Internet access device, an Internet picture frame, an MP3 player and a few other things to boot. A company called Senseboard Technologies showed off its virtual keyboard, which lets you type in the air by measuring the movements of your fingers and converting them to readable e-mail messages. Then there was the Chat Pen from Ericsson, which records your handwriting on digital paper, transmits this digitized scrawl to your cell phone, and sends it along to any e-mail address. There are countless others, in prototype and production.

Most of these concepts, of course, will tank. Not because they don’t offer enough processing power or storage capacity. Not because they don’t offer compatibility with the latest wireless protocol. Not because they don’t do what they’re supposed to do, although that can be an issue. Unh-uh. The ultimate success or failure of any given gizmo will depend on a million or so people picking it up and deciding whether it feels good or not.

“Most good products are designed around the person, not the technology,” says Donald A. Norman, principal at Fremont, CA-based Nielsen Norman Group and author of The Invisible Computer, a manifesto for replacing “technology-centered” products with “human-centered” ones. “It’s not a case of people saying, Gee, look at this neat technology.’ It’s a case of people saying, Gee, look at what this thing can do for me.’”

And therein lies the problem. For many years the art of human-factors engineering has been neglected by the computer industry. But as computing power seeps from the desktop further into our daily lives, it’s becoming all the more important to make products that are both easy to use and improvements on what we’re using today. A human-factors approach assumes that the things we’ll carry in the future are not going to be invented so much as discovered-that the answer to the question of what devices we’ll carry will become obvious as we learn more about human behavior.

Step 1-Field Research

Jakob Nielsen is annoyed.

Norman’s partner in the Nielsen Norman Group has just finished giving a conference on user interface design. But what Nielsen believes to be the most important presentation-how to conduct field studies on human behavior-was presented to rows of empty seats. “Most people think of design as a debugging process,” he grumbles. “They think you come up with a product, then go ask people what’s wrong with it. To my way of thinking that’s exactly wrong. The best products are going to come out of following people around.”

Years of following people around has given Nielsen definite opinions about what people want. They want consistency, for example. To know that a given action will cause a predictable reaction-like ringing a doorbell or dialing a telephone number.

“That’s why pen-based computing has never taken off, and never will,” he says with a dismissive wave. “You have to check it all the time to see if it’s working. It’s also difficult to correct mistakes. It’s the same with voice recognition. It will take 20 years before voice recognition technology is reliable enough for people to want it.”
So what do people want? Andrew Odlyzko, a former AT&T Labs researcher who now directs the University of Minnesota’s Digital Technology Center, believes from his own studies of human interaction with digital things that people will always look to their wireless gizmos mainly for communication, not entertainment. “If we look at what most people will want [from wireless devices], it’s interaction with other people,” Odlyzko says. “That’s why cell phones are such a success.”

Nielsen, too, is upbeat about the usefulness of an integrated communications device-if designed correctly: something that would include voice and e-mail and instant messaging, combining all of Mr. Pugh’s gizmos into one neat package. Such a device would have as large a display as possible and eschew voice commands and pen-based computing for a simple qwerty keyboard. It would also include Global Positioning System capability, in order to give you what you need where and when you need it. “Say I need a taxi,” says Nielsen. “I pull out this device and can see where cabs are available and how long it will take them to get to my position. I call one by touching the screen. I don’t have to call five companies. I don’t have to tell them where I am. I don’t even have to stay where I am. The cab finds me.”

But Nielsen doubts that people will use these integrated devices to surf the Web when they’re away from home-another beloved concept among gizmo developers. “The average person will not,” he asserts. “The wireless connection will always be more expensive. The device will always be more cumbersome than what you have at home. And you’re not going to be in a nice office in front of a big color monitor-you’re going to be standing in the rain at a bus stop, paying by the packet.”

What will happen instead, Nielsen and Odlyzko predict, is that people will carry their entertainment in a specialized, nonwireless device, taking advantage of ever cheaper storage and ever more powerful processors. Yesterday’s Sony Walkman and today’s tiny MP3 players are harbingers of this trend. “The argument for getting content over the air is rather weak,” says Odlyzko. “It’s more likely that people will download information into their own, recordable device that they will carry with them and play when convenient.”

I come away from these conversations envisioning a future where we carry two primary gizmos, each used for very different reasons. (Add any additional gizmos, and we run into what Odlyzko warns will be a quagmire of competing devices that serve no useful function other than losing investors’ money.) The first gizmo, the one designers are focusing most of their attention on today, is our preferred communications device, the one that keeps us in touch. The second is our content-rich device, which allows us to carry our entertainment and even our computing power along with us. Neither function is particularly well served by existing products: cell phone and personal digital assistant screens are too ridiculously small, and laptops are too bulky and fragile. In other words, there is plenty of room for improvement based on human-factors principles. “The key is to remember that people don’t want to fool with it,” Nielsen says. “They just want it to work. It’s a matter of getting things to work the way people think.”

Step 2-Concept

Dennis Boyle is a gizmo maniac.

Boyle brings eleven digital organizers to our meeting-all devices he has used himself over the years, beginning with the Apple Newton and ending with the Handspring Visor, a digital organizer complete with a camera add-on that Boyle helped to design himself. He gleefully takes my picture with it, entering my likeness into his digital contact list. “It’s handy,” he says, a bit defensively. “Now I can look you up, see the picture, remember who you are.” He and Rickson Sun, who also takes part in our interview, are 20-year veterans at Ideo, the award-winning design organization in Palo Alto, CA. Talking about the future of gizmos gets them energized.

Sun leaps up from his chair and begins to write words on the whiteboard in one of Ideo’s conference rooms: coins, watch, pen, keys, phone, wallet. Under wallet he writes currency, receipts, photos, credit cards.

“Okay, what do we carry today?” he says. “Things that identify us. Things that give us access. Things that let us communicate.” He begins to draw circles grouping some of the words together. “You can already see how some of these things can be combined or replaced.” The things Sun groups together are logically related: a wallet, for example, could be replaced by a digital organizer, with credit cards and receipts and photos stored digitally on the same device. “Keys could go away with biometrics,” Sun adds, referring to technology that can verify an individual’s identity using physical characteristics such as fingerprints. Coins could be replaced by an electronic barter system that automatically keeps track of your funds and offers on-the-spot discounts. Compared with Sun’s groupings, combinations such as phones with FM radios (a concept currently being touted by Nokia) seem downright silly.

On the communications side, Sun assumes that some number of people will inevitably want to fold voice and data communications into a handy package. “Voice and e-mail and instant messaging all serve related needs,” he says. “Giving people access to all of them while still allowing them to get up and walk around is very empowering.”

Right now, though, it’s hard to find all of these functions in one package. The BlackBerry two-way pager from Waterloo, Ontario-based Research in Motion, for example, offers e-mail and instant-messaging services but no voice communications. Cell phones carry voice signals but very limited data. A gaggle of handheld designers are now racing to provide a convenient way to integrate all three functions.

Whatever the designers come up with, Boyle and Sun (like Nielsen) bring up almost immediately how important it is to give people a consistent, predictable outcome-some reaction to an action that will happen every time, without question. Yet from the advent in 1989 of GRiDPad, the first pen-based tablet computer, to Bill Gates’s keynote speech at Comdex last November, there has been a collective conviction among computer companies that handwriting recognition will replace the keyboard. Ideo itself worked on the GRiDPad and many other pen-based devices that were beautifully designed yet utterly inappropriate for sending e-mail messages. Then came the BlackBerry-no bulkier than a remote control for a garage door opener, yet equipped with a curved qwerty keyboard that allows thumb typing at up to 30 words per minute. “No one had ever gotten around how to make the keyboard small enough,” says Boyle, “until someone figured out, okay, if you’re going to be all thumbs with these things, then so be it.” The BlackBerry’s easy-to-use interface has helped make it into a cult item among gearheads-and the new standard for wireless e-mail and paging.

While Ideo missed the thumb keyboard, it does have a record of ferreting out solutions that resolve equally contradictory goals. Take, for instance, Ideo’s concept design for a future laptop computer. As engineers have learned how to squeeze more computing power and longer-lasting batteries into smaller and smaller spaces, Sun and Rickson observe, designers have been able to make laptops lighter and more portable. But this added convenience has often come at the cost of durability, which is why anyone who drops a state-of-the-art laptop on airport linoleum may discover that it’s damaged beyond repair. Ideo’s futuristic concept of the laptop, by contrast, will be both more portable and more durable: a metal tube from which screen and keyboard roll out like window shades.

What other considerations does Ideo take into account when designing a handheld product? One big one is that people value their acquired skills, no matter how ergonomically dysfunctional. This means they want their phones to look like phones. “Whether it’s a good thing or not, some people are used to holding phones with their neck and walking around changing diapers or typing,” says Sun. “It’s a highly evolved skill. You don’t want to take those kinds of things away from people.”

Again, disingenuously straightforward observations. Make things that always do what people expect them to. Build them to make these things easier rather than more complicated. Make them look and feel familiar.
Three simple ideas, but they rule out so much of what is envisioned for our digital future. Like that typing-in-thin-air keyboard. Gone as well are pen-based tablets, no matter how much Bill Gates tells me I want one. I flash on an image of myself at next year’s Comdex, walking past rows of now empty booths, each company’s innovations done in by their inability to provide an answer to one fundamental question: “What do people want?”

Step 3-Product

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.

Step 4-Back to the Drawing Board

Spend some time with human-factors experts and you begin to understand the tendency of research engineers not to listen to them. Engineers often get excited about what they can build, whether or not it’s useful or usable. But human-factors experts are suggesting a more restrained approach, one that acknowledges our human needs and limitations first, before coming up with the innovations.

Which leads to some harsh conclusions: That in spite of an industry-wide assumption that pen-based computing is in our future, humans seem hellbent on being able to type a key and be certain of a result. That in spite of the obvious appeal of speech recognition, we’re still going to prefer typing to that, too, until voice-activated technologies are just as trustworthy. That for all the hype about wireless delivery of broadband content, there’s little evidence that users will suddenly want such material.

In trying to make gizmos that have a shot at becoming as popular as today’s cell phones or PDAs, human-factors engineers have their work cut out for them. They will need to make their products small yet powerful; light yet durable; able to perform multiple functions but without burdening us with undue complexity. Most current designs treat these demands as contradictory-how can a device be both multifunctional and easy to use? Or small and powerful? Or portable and durable? But designs like the Ideo laptop and the Handspring Treo go a long way toward proving that it’s possible to give people everything they want, given proper attention to usability.

In the last few years we’ve already seen many technologically sophisticated, hard-to-use gizmos fail. Once there was the Modo, a keychain-sized device that displayed information about restaurants on a tiny screen. No one bought Modos, and the company ceased production in October 2000. 3Com built Audrey, a digital organizer for the masses, which swiftly tanked. Whole subgenres of gizmos, such as portable Internet radios, have virtually disappeared. Each device failed because it offered a solution to a problem that wasn’t there.
If those who propose a human-centered design approach are correct, we’re about to see a whole new wave of product failures. But we’re also about to see some quiet but life-changing successes-devices that give us what we need and that make our lives easier. Focusing on the things people will want to carry, rather than what we’re able to build in a research lab, doesn’t mean that engineers will have to stop being inventive. It just means they’ll need to start thinking more about what people want-before deciding what to invent.

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