On Good Design
Your design issue made for enjoyable reading, although in your cover story on Helio’s Ocean phone, you fell under the spell of Helio’s marketing (“Soul of a New Mobile Machine,” May/June 2007). Helio sacrificed the defining feature of a desirable portable communication device–slimness–for the dubious benefit of rounded “pill” corners. There is good reason why size reduction has always been the holy grail of cell-phone manufacturers: smaller is better. But instead of working toward slimness, Helio painted Ocean black and put a silver girdle around it to make it look thin. This does not make it any easier to carry in a shirt or pant pocket. The Ocean is the antithesis of good design. Contrast that with Apple’s “Snow White” design language, as described in the same issue (“Different”). Apple’s decision to use perpendicular sides on its machines led to savings in plastic, packaging material, and shipping costs.
What’s more, Ocean is opening stores in the most expensive retail locations in the country and providing “spa treatments” for phones. This is a return to the excesses of the tech bubble. No wonder Helio has burned through much of its $440 million in funding and lost $192 million last year.
Redwood City, CA
In reading your design issue, I thought of a part of a verse about the Venus de Milo from “The Engineer’s Drinking Song”: “On seeing that she had no clothes, an engineer discoursed/’Why, the damn thing’s only concrete, and should be reinforced!’”
Design is often very mysterious to technologists. To some, it means a visual appeal that so far has resisted adequate explanation. To others, functionality, simplicity, use of materials, or cost tug at the heart. For many of us, straight lines and right angles form the foundation of design, from buildings to chips. The expanded possibilities for more-complex shapes often confuse the engineering soul.
Our appreciation of design rests in the fact that we’re equipped with senses that have evolved in nature, not in sheetrock boxes, on asphalt roadways, or in front of luminous screens. We best appreciate that which we can recognize with hand or eye, and for which we are prepared by our wiring. The woods around my home are “designed” just for me; some lousy Microsoft application obviously is not.
So I hope that you or I might see Venus as a woman, rather than a structurally inadequate and otherwise meaningless obstruction in an otherwise acceptable rectilinear box.
South Norwalk, CT
I enjoyed Jason Pontin’s most recent editor’s letter (“On Beautiful Machines,” May/June 2007). He is right: machines should be simple. A decade ago I bought a 1996 Buick Century, and in 2001 I bought a new one. When I put the shifting lever into drive in the 1996 car, I could clearly see the pointer in sunlight striking it from any angle. But my luxurious 2001 Buick doesn’t have a pointer; it has a small lit-up orange square that moves across a screen of letters when you move the shift lever. I found this change impressive until I put my car into drive one late afternoon when the sun hung low in the sky. I couldn’t see the orange square. I had to block the sunlight with my left hand to find drive. Some improvement.
The Semantic Web
We read with interest John Borland’s piece on the Semantic Web (“A Smarter Web,” March/April 2007). We agree that this is an exciting time in the Semantic Web’s development, yet we want to point out that its great degree of structure has drawbacks. As the article noted, Semantic Web users must learn complex ontology languages and structure their information and data using them. This difficulty inhibits the growth of the Semantic Web. It is thus arguable whether the Semantic Web can approach the scale of the standard Web, where anyone can easily create and publish content.
Ideally, we should combine the strengths of the Semantic Web and the normal Web. Search would be a good place to start. Today, global free-text search is the primary means of querying the whole Web, but it provides only coarse-grained access to documents. In contrast, the Semantic Web allows much more precise queries across multiple information sources (say, querying for a particular attribute, such as “street address”). However, it is on a much smaller scale, involving far fewer documents. We could imagine combining normal and Semantic Web queries–for instance, to search the free text of all real-estate Web pages written by women in Boston during the last week for the word “Jacuzzi.” Taking this further, the few structured relationships currently in the Semantic Web could be used to refine the results of mainstream search engines.
Finally, as so much activity in the life sciences is focused on large-scale interoperation on the Web (as found in drug discovery), we feel that biological research could serve as a useful guide and driving force for the development of Web 3.0.
Mark Gerstein and Andrew Smith
Computational Biology and Bioinformatics Program
New Haven, CT