Edo the Reliable ("Amin")

The Ultimate Interface Machine

In General GUI, Music/MP3, PDA/Smartphones on November 1, 2000 at 12:24 pm

“Interaction is the Achilles’ heel of most MP3 players; Introducing tap-based textual navigation to select tracks is sexy”, I wrote in 2000. A condensed version of an article first published Nov. 2000 in Digital Culture, Globe’s Monthly Digital Culture magazine. Globe’s is Israel’s leading financial newspaper.

Handspring Visor PDA with MiniJam, an MP3 player (Circa 2000)

Handspring Visor PDA with MiniJam, an MP3 player (Circa 2000)

The Visor is an interface machine poised to absorb all other appliances, hitting them with superior interaction. Here’s how it assimilates cameras, phones and even the old TV remote control. These Interaction Machines , optimally balanced in size and ease of use, lead the next phase in the evolution of computing as they silently crawl into our pockets. User-friendliness now has its own physical platform, and the theater for the next battle for world domination is your kitchen table.

Evolution is accelerating again

Phones have lately been growing larger displays, developing their skills at recognizing their masters’ voice, lowering their body mass to better fit into our pockets. Infrared intra-device communication is back. And for the first time in over a decade, we have a completely new popular hardware platform – after this option has been buried for good by analysts.

The situation is pretty active. Like prehistoric creatures swimming in a primordial soup at the dawn of evolution, we are currently surrounded by electronic devices desperately trying their best to change, miniaturize, adapt, split and merge, as if exposed to a strange radiation that has accelerated their mutation rate.

The main species taking part in this fast change are phones, TVs, satellites, laptops and PDAs. Mobile phones attempt to answer the email need with SMS messages, and in some advanced model create infrared contact with PDAs (examples are Motorola’s ultimate cellphone, Timeport, and Nokia’s 8120). And – IR communication is back.

Infrared as virus

Sic transit gloria mundi: the battle over controlling future international communication will not be decided along the endless miles of optical cables laid down for the second coming of the Internet, nor in the wide wastelands of cyberspace. No, the battle will rage on your bedside cupboard, centering on yer olde infrared remote control – a slow, old-fashion contraption created for music volume adjustment and kitchen appliance control. Maybe the bottom line is that what the people want isn’t really 3D digital TV with reverse motion after all, but rather a remote control with less buttons, only those I need, only when I need them. When they broadcast NYPD on StarTV channel, I’ll have a button pop up on my remote control labeled “Simon now”. In the morning hours, I’d like a key titled “raincheck”, and maybe a button to start the espresso machine (titled “Short”).

The first OS born with native support for infrared is the palm OS. PDAs needed infrared for its viral implementation – broadcasting your visit card to another peer group member is just that, a viral connection powered by workspace politics and food ladder. On their triumph throught he workplace, PDAs go for the low-hanging fruit too: assimilation of other, older devices of personal assistance. The remote control is one interesting example.

The remote control is an easy prey

The remote control we use to operate appliances is a badly designed device. Over populated by a cluster of unnecessary, non-uniform buttons, apparently
Lacking those you feel you really need, and – usually no clock. It was apparently designed by the same departments that brought us the unusable VCR clock. With each new electronic device we aquire, a new remote control claims some living room or bedroom table. And with all their communication savvy the remote control units always get lost. Yes, things slowly improve, but slowness is a characteristic of the prey.

New software can now turn a Palm or Visor PDA to a sophisticated remote control. What’s so hot about a 200$ remote control? Answers: A. You can draw your own buttons. B. You can easily program macros.  C. It has a backlight. The user reaction I witness is often “I-Think-I’ve-seen-my-next-computer”.

The ultimate interface machine

The PDA attack on the remote control is a display of some of the PDA’s best characteristics: friendliness and personalization. The PDA positions itself as the ultimate interface machine. It’s a machine to provide interfacing, and the software you get to run on it is irrelevant. It may even reside on an external module! It’s a great day in computer history: the day interaction got its own platform.

Technologically speaking, the PDA is a full-blown computer. Visor and Palm have in their advanced models 6 or 8 Mb of RAM, a built in infrared interface, a built in USB PC interface, a selection of wireless modems, optional full size keyboards and digital cameras ready to hook up.  Add strong compatibility with software such as Word, Excel etc. – and all that happened under the disarming term “personal assistant”. I purchased mine is an office supply store – ah, what cunning!

Darling, I shrank the PC

Far from a mere personal assistant, Palm OS is, in fact, the first platform that conquered a sufficient base for survival since the PC itself. This came practically out from the blue, just as public media was surrendering to the Evil Empire. But the writing was on the wall: didn’t we computer veterans repeat, time after time, that miniaturization will amount to a life-transforming revolution?

Well, the idea behind the miniaturization revolution always was to have a PC in our pocket, rather than having more and more processing power in an overheated desktop. If Wintel didn’t deliver, others did. In the 90’s, appliance miniaturization was not limited anymore by chip size, but by interface size. There’s a minimal size to an operable computer’s key, and teeny-weeny machines with smaller keys will get a very small user share, if you pardon the pun. This was the necessity that was the mother of alternative input ideas such as voice recognition (used in cell phones) and handwriting recognition (used in PDAs).

You will be assimilated

Spend some time with a PDA, and you’re in for the first disaster, when for one reason or another your PDA’s memory is erased. Experienced users follow the status of their battery, but mine died after two weeks, before I became one. I found myself on a street corner in New York city, on my way to a date in a dance bar, which exact location was suddenly inaccessible (the excellent Vindigo software), my own location and orientation became a mystery too as my map disappeared (Mapopolis), no compass (yep, there’s such thing as a software compass – it works by sun and stars), no phone numbers (built-in address book), and no location of train station or estimated trip time (Metro software).

My point is that info was pumped from me within a couple of weeks, using only a couple AAA batteries, and I was happy as a clam during the process; it made me realize what a grand mission my strained memory cells had to burden daily before I had myself wired to a Visor. If I remember shopping lists again, it’s only because my visor remembers everything else for me.

The portrait of the PDA as a friendly data pump makes it clear it’s in an advantageous position to be the world’s premier fulfillment of the “personal agent” vision, a position sought by both phone ands PC. By the way, as demand augments, LCD displays are in short supply; that’s why it’s even more interesting to check the efforts of the PDA to become your phone.

Just tap my name and I’ll be there

The last round in the evolution of Palm OS is Handspring’s Visor-Phone. Handspring is a Palm compatible, somewhat cheaper and slightly fatter (which proves the Palm’s already smaller than what most of us would have asked for). But the differentiating feature of the Visor is an expansion slot, its jaws ready to assimilate the functionality of other man-made creatures.

The Visor’s slot accepts modules. There’s a memory expansion module, backup module, a module turns the Visor into a digital camera; at 320X240 pixels, it’s a very low qaulity camera – but as with the remote control module, it’s a “where-do-I-get-one” module that sells Visors. The secret: this camera is in my pocket when my others are not; and I can jot meaningful photo names as I shoot, or file them away into neat folders on the “camera”. And the timer’s so cool to operate, using a pen and a touch screen. It’s so cool… to delete pictures using a natural, flowing interface. And as in the history of music, lower quality and higher convenience makes for a winning formula.

Navigate your music player textually

Another extreme Visor module is MiniJam, an MP3 player. It has an earphone jack and a real button panel; but no real memory or energy savings. It uses its own batteries, and its own MC memory chips. So the MiniJam can also play when it’s out of the “dock”; a sort of symbiosis.

So, what’s the deal here? Why do we need an MP3 player that’s inserted into a PDA? Replace the word “PDA” with “interface machine” or “navigation machine” and things might get clearer. Interaction is the Achilles’ heel of most MP3 players; Introducing tap-based textual navigation to select tracks is sexy.Drawing an equalizer’s curve as the module is inside the Visor is sexy too. The next feature is surprisingly simple: since the Visor comes with a USB cradle, you don’t need a special cable to hook the player to your PC. You already have an interface machine, right?

Oh, almost forgot – it can also read an e-book and display pictures.

A better phone than the phone

The Visor is the PDA strain that beat the phones in transforming itself to them before they transformed themselves to it. The Visor is now a phone.

It already had a hardware mic. Modules that enable wireless mail are around as well. What was missing? Not too much, and it was planned. “The slot in the Visor was originally intended for wireless communication”, revealed last August Jeff Hawkins, Handspring’s CEO and a founder, and formerly Palm’s main tech person. Now it’s here: for 300 bucks you get a thin module that lets you talk right into your PDA, and transforms it into a GSM mobile phone. It looks as a phone, with images of phone keys on its screen, but who wants to dial? We are definitely not going to pay some five c-notes and then tap numbers! It makes more sense to scribe names or set macro buttons named after our favorite contacts.

Incoming call? You get a super classy display with all caller’s details, extracted from the incoming signal and cross-referenced with your address book info. Need to locate info while you talk? It’s amazing how badly this is done, if at all, on regular phones, and they deserve to be smacked for this. SMS? Now that’s funny. Nothing is sexier than literally writing SMS, using a stylus, on your PDA. To sum it up, the Visor is a better phone that the phone is a PDA.  Or more than a phone, period.

The secret: the CEO is a CPO

“The basic idea behind the Visor Phone is to reinvent the user experience for voice calls”, says Ed Culligan, Handspring’s VP Marketing. “The last milestone in phone design was at the end of the sixties, when touch phones replaced the rotary dial phones”. Four US phone companies now announced they will offer cellular packages for VisorPhone users: bell south, Pacific Bell, VoiceStream and Powertel. I’m not sure they heard Hawkins’ evaluation of their own fate: in 20 years, he predicted this year, cellular service will be free of charge.

Seems this is what you get when the company’s chief is also the CPO- Chief Product Officer – an uncommon position, placing product management higher on the org chart than the tech department. Seems that’s what you need to make headway and beat the competition – in this case, it’s Motorola, currently a shareholder in competing product Palm.

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