Thoughts about iWalk

Jeff Bone
Thu, 03 Jan 2002 14:50:32 -0600

The most amazing thing about the iWalk, IMO and based solely on the
stuff from spymac, is that Apple seems to have learned nothing at all
or at least forgotten what they'd learned from the Newton debacle
(and its coda, the GenMagic debacle.)

Form factor.  Form factor, form factor, form factor.  Every single
focus group, user interaction, feedback forum, etc. that anybody
working in PDAs participated in back in the day came up with "form
factor" as the #1 dissatisfaction with the units.  (Other things were
pricepoint, speed --- mostly instant-on, battery life, and ability to
integrate and quickly sync with their desktops.)

And thereby hangs a tale.  Most people wanted pocket-sized units.
Some smaller number --- but still a considerable audience --- wanted
bigger units, a kind of active notepad.  Sculley, in his infinite
wisdom (and influenced by technological and cost constraints) split
the middle.  Problem is, you *can't* split the middle.  Designing UI
and ergonomics for pocket-size devices is a *fundamentally different
task* than designing for screens that are larger in an absolute
sense.  The Newton form factor --- which the iWalk appears to mimic
in a general sense, i.e. bigger-than-pocket size --- fails to be a
PDA, because it's too big to ensure that you'll always carry it ---
an absolute necessity for a PDA to be useful.  It fails as a notepad
because it's too small to use for that purpose.  It's a form factor
without an application, one that nobody wants or needs.

This scenario was repeated by General Magic, who (despite intense
user feedback *and* pressure from their partners) never ran Magic Cap
on a releasable pocket-size device.  Indeed, GenMagic made it *even
harder* to scale MC down to pocket size due to the intensely
graphical nature of the UI.

Jeff Hawkins' genius was simply that he listened to the users and
delivered what they asked for:  pocket-size, under $300, instant-on,
synchronization, fast-and-dirty PIM functionality.  All the rest of
the stuff the others emphasized:  free handwriting recognition,
pretty UI, more elegant technology under the hood, bigger screen,
etc. etc. was the 20 in the 80/20, and the users didn't want it.

It looks like Apple is repeating most of the old mistakes:  too big,
not instant-on, emphasis on pretty UI and glitzy tech like free
handwriting rec (probably recycled from the Newton), etc.  The users
didn't want it the last time around;  not sure they'll want it this
time, either.

I wish somebody would get off their duff and make a reasonable
notepad.  I'm not going to replace my Palm with such a device, but I
might well replace my notebook.


PS - the form factor argument is a fascinating example of how
physical / real-world constraints can influence and define
applications.  Another favorite of mine is the argument about whether
keyboards will *ever* be replaced as an input mechanism:  my answer
is no, because the way we interact with /via keyboards is a
fundamentally different and novel thing, a highly parallel and
suspendable thing, and nothing --- not speech rec, not handwriting,
not even thought rec --- allows or *can allow* for information
creation in quite the same nonlinear fashion.  (Chording comes close
but IMO that's just an alternative kind of keyboard.)