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.
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.)
Video: Bruce Sterling, the writer and design expert, explains why so many technology designs seem hostile.
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.”
Lee’s innovation was what Dayton calls “the germ of the idea” for the Ocean’s basic dual-slide form. But the horizontal slider had to be a full QWERTY keyboard–far larger than Lee’s music controller–in order to make messaging and search satisfying experiences. Most mobile gadgets with QWERTY keyboards cram them into a square, with the space bar or Delete key stuck in an unfamiliar place. The large horizontal slider provided more real estate to work with. The Ocean’s designers put the space bar–the most-used button–between the V and the B, so you can hit it with either thumb. The Enter and Delete keys are about where they are on a full-scale keyboard.
But the dual-slide format brought on another problem: no one wanted a device that was too thick. A number pad and a QWERTY keyboard would normally require two sets of springs and hinges–one for each slider. This would tend to fatten the gadget. What’s more, Helio wanted the sliders to be rugged and to have a firm “feel,” like the luxurious thwunk of a BMW’s door. “We need to avoid those indeterminate states, when it can slide halfway out, and it is neither fish nor fowl,” Duarte says. The Ocean needed a very special kind of mechanism: a single spring that could not only control hinging action from two directions but impart that hum-to-yourself satisfaction to the keyboard-sliding experience.
Designing the spring required the expertise of product-engineering specialists. Most cellular carriers will hire a manufacturing company–a general contractor, if you will–and accept its solution to a given mechanical problem. Helio had hired Pantech of Seoul, South Korea, to build the phone, but it also hired a small engineering company, Teus of Suwon, South Korea, specifically to solve the hinge problem. Teus’s people came up with something new in the realm of mobile communications: an ingenious triangle-shaped spring that governs the opening and closing of both of the Ocean’s sliders. The triangle simply gets pushed on different sides, depending on which slider is being used. Using one of the sliders feels like pushing something over a little incline and then dropping it firmly down into a locked position. With the design of the spring, Helio was on its way to a device that worked well as both a phone and a messaging device–without being too fat.
But while the hinge spring made the dual-slide concept feasible, the dual-slide concept brought on the d-pad problem. “D-pad” means direction pad: four arrow keys with a center button. For messaging and Web surfing, the d-pad should be to the right of the screen. This is because most people use their right thumb to navigate. But in gaming, the right thumb has a more important job: it must keep up a rapid staccato on a firing button. So for game consoles, the d-pad needs to be on the left. Another Korean engineer at Helios, gaming-product manager Leo Jun, insisted that if the Ocean was really going to be the best of everything, there could be no compromise on the d-pad. The device had to have a left-side pad for gaming–whether or not it also had a right-side pad for messaging. It was another “conflict of requirements.”
Jun’s solution: give the device not two orientations but three. The first orientation, of course, is vertical–for the phone. The second, with the QWERTY keyboard open, is horizontal; in this configuration, the d-pad is on the right, for scrolling through messages. The Ocean’s software changes the orientation of the displayed material depending on which slider is pulled out. But Jun asked game manufacturers to give Helio versions of their software that essentially played upside down. Flip the device 180 degrees, keeping both sliders closed, and the game is now playing right-side up–with the d‑pad on the left. “That was a nice move on his part, so it doesn’t undermine the gaming experience,” says Duarte.
Now there was the problem of the “soft keys”–keys that do different things at different times, such as navigate options or open up an e-mail list. Most users expect these soft keys to be in the same basic place, relative to the screen, no matter what they’re using the device for. “The mind builds up relational patterns,” says Duarte. “You remember the thing at the lower right of the thing I am looking at. You associate this with function–to bring up your contact list, for example.” But since the Ocean has different orientations, the user will anticipate soft keys in different places, depending on how the device is being used. So Helio gave the Ocean four soft keys, two on either side of the screen. The dual-slider problem begat the d‑pad problem, which in turn led to radially symmetric soft keys.
Once the layout problems had been solved, size became a concern. Early in the design process, the Helio designers had settled on a pill shape: they thought it elegant, and they believed it would make the Ocean stand out in a market crowded with squares and rectangles. “The pill is beautiful, but hard to make,” says Duarte. “Most [internal] components are rectangles, and the most efficient space for packing them is a larger rectangle. We had a lot of trouble [getting] manufacturers to do a pill, because it had never been done before.” And the shape indeed created some problems.
The Helio designers had wanted to keep the device to about 100 millimeters long by 55 millimeters wide. But in fitting square objects into that area–chips, screens, batteries–they had to square off the round corners, losing the pure pill shape. Eventually, Helio mocked up an advanced version of this revised design–one of several that were made along the way. It had looked fine on paper, but when the prototype came back, everyone knew it was wrong. It just didn’t have the strikingly different pill-shaped form. “It had all the negatives of a pill shape–we couldn’t use the corners–and none of the positives,” Duarte says. So the prototype was tossed out: “We had to redo all of the tools. Those were some painful times.”
Plus, they had to “increase the LCD screen,” as one of the product engineers, S. K. Kim, puts it. Why? “It was actually Sky,” Kim says. The boss decided he wanted a bigger screen–2.4 inches instead of 2.2 inches long. Dayton’s desires could not be engineered away. Nor could the growing demand for power. Generally, the Ocean’s engineers minimized power consumption with software that put functions to sleep; some hardware choices, such as a separate microprocessor for playing music, helped too. But the device needed to endure a full multimedia workout all day–gaming, phoning, and messaging–before requiring a charge, so it was hard to get away with a small battery. All this drove the device toward somewhat larger dimensions: 115 millimeters long, 56 millimeters wide, and 21.9 millimeters thick, bucking the trend toward ever-slimmer devices.
The appearance of bulkiness was a concern to everyone on the team. There could be no sacrifice of function, and no putting the Ocean on a diet. So the engineers sat down to figure out how to make their slightly bloated electronic jackknife appear as thin as an iPod Nano. The Ocean could not be made thinner, but it could be made to look thinner. As the old carpenters’ saying goes: “Paint makes it what it ain’t.” Shininess and hardness can make a device seem larger; Helio chose a soft-touch black paint, partly for its slimming effect and partly for its somewhat minimalist look and slightly rubbery feel.
To further the illusion of slimness, a thin silver band encircles the device, in the middle of the soft black bulk. The eye sees the silvery line; the brain perceives thinness. And as a final touch to make the exterior as sleek and unobtrusive as possible, the buttons were made to appear black when the device was off but to light up when it was on. On the verge of the gadget’s debut in late March, the design team rushed out to make this last-minute change.
Dual-slide inspiration: The Ocean’s dual-slide design was inspired by a dual-sliding device conceived by Helio product-planning manager Jungyong Lee when he worked at SK Telecom in Korea. In Lee’s Korean gadget, music-player controls popped from the side; in the Ocean, a full horizontal keyboard does the same.
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.
Finally, Helio embarked on a quest for the holy grail of high-end consumer marketing: to use the jargon of marketers, the company wants to design a unique retail experience–indeed, a lifestyle–around its gadgets. To do this, it hired a creative director, Joe Spencer, veteran of such projects as the aluminum skin of Disney’s “Carousel of Progress” exhibit. Spencer designed the Helio flame icon, the Helions, and the concept behind the Helio retail stores–four of them so far, in San Diego, Palo Alto, Santa Monica, and Denver, soon to be joined by a fifth in New York City’s SoHo. At the Santa Monica store one Friday morning, animations designed by Spencer’s creative team played across several screens. In one, Helions with butterfly wings flitted about on a sunflower field, symbolizing the “cross-pollinating of ideas on a network,” he explained.
Besides four “pods” displaying Helio products, the store also features prints of images–like the voluptuous “Sugarluxe Girls” by artist Chandra Michaels–that users can upload as screen savers for $1.99. “One of the design tenets of what we are doing is that we are not a typical gigantic phone company that has no lifestyle attached to it,” Spencer says. Users can even come and get their devices “spa treatments”–pressured-air cleanings, alcohol rubs–for free.
In the half-hour I was at the Santa Monica store, only one customer showed up. Granted, it was a Friday morning, and the store had just opened. And the Ocean is not out yet–it goes on sale this spring. Only then will Helio know whether the stores will be packed with early adopters, drawn in by design, who will become hooked on a machine that delivers. At first, perhaps, interface and functionality will matter more than silver stripes and the thwack of a keyboard. “When a product category emerges, early adopters look from a functional perspective,” says Steve Walker, vice president and global head of marketing at Sony Ericsson. “But when the market matures–with later-adopting consumers, who have less functional demands–the importance of the aesthetic design becomes proportionally more important.”
Helio is certainly aiming at that larger market; it wants to sell phones to more people than geeks, or even hipsters in SoHo and Santa Monica. Already, the device is being discussed in the same breath as the iPhone. But just how the Ocean, the iPhone, and other do-it-all devices will compete and coexist in different markets won’t be clear until the competition, and the shakeout, begin this spring.
Meanwhile, there is no rest for Helio’s designers. Back at headquarters, after our chat, Duarte grabbed a Red Bull out of the fridge in the break room. “One might imagine we’re working on future products as we speak,” he said with a grin.
David Talbot is TR’s chief correspondent.