[FoRK] Form factor implies application; a new class of semi-mobile devices emerges?

Jeff Bone <jbone at place.org> on Sun Jul 15 11:22:19 PDT 2007

So, I have this hypothesis that I've been sort of knocking around for  
about the last 13 years or so.  It's basically this:  that form  
factor and ergonomics in a computing device imply (though not  
entirely define) "the application."  Consider PDAs:  Go, Newton,  
Magic Cap, and several other also-rans attempted to define and  
capture a space for mobile computing devices, but it wasn't until  
Palm introduced the Pilot at Demo '96 that anybody actually "got it  
right."  The form factor --- pocket sized --- was the real feature  
that defined things, though other factors --- instant on, instant  
application switching, minimalist PIM apps, a read-mostly focus, the  
right price-point, and fast sync w/ the desktop all pushed things  
over the top.

Since then, the phenomenal uptake in cell phones has minimized the  
market opportunity for non-phone pocket devices.  Most consumers  
appear --- for whatever reason --- only willing to carry one pocket- 
sized device with them constantly.  And if they're only going to  
carry one of those, they'll carry a phone w/ pared-back PDA  
functionality rather than carry a PDA w/o a phone.  The natural  
ergonomics and implicit constraints and preferences of the consumer  
demand this sort of thing.  They also demand that the devices carried  
are read-mostly --- nobody actually does any significant data entry  
on these things, even e.g. the Blackberry.  Short e-mails, notes-to- 
self, SMS texts, and so forth --- sure.  But nobody's writing novels  
or coding or so forth.

It's also interesting that the consumer has apparently chosen the  
laptop over the tablet.  Despite numerous attempts at the tablet,  
nobody's been able to get any real traction there outside of a few  
very specialized verticals and the occasional turbo-geek early- 
adopter.  I speculate that this is because a heavier, bigger device  
to the consumer implies "my one --- or one of my few --- primary-use  
machines."  Given this, it needs to be fully read-write...  and  
despite many attempts at handwriting recognition, e-ink, and so on,  
nothing beats a keyboard (nor will it, short of neural CHI --- and  
perhaps not even that) for heavy text entry / interactivity.  (It's  
interesting that the best-selling general-purpose entrants into this  
space are the "convertibles" with full keyboard.)

I do think there's still a fundamentally unfilled and interesting  
"ecological niche" in semi-mobile devices.  It's the mini-tablet /  
read-mostly / mostly non-personal browsing and reading device.  It's  
specifically NOT a PDA and NOT oriented towards large amounts of text  
entry and interactivity.  The form-factor would be something about  
the width and height of a letter-sized pad, or (better) even less ---  
trade paperback sized.  Thickness ~ .5 inches, weight a pound or  
less.  It would have wi-fi, a web browser + Gears, be instant-on, and  
specifically NOT do PIM-like things *locally* (rather relying on Web- 
based integrated PIM stuff with Gears-based offline support.)  It's  
primary function would be the instant-on quick-reference device sort  
of thing, and as such it wouldn't be deeply personal.  The  
expectation wouldn't be that this is something somebody necessarily  
carries constantly --- rather, something that one might buy several  
of and leave laying around in convenient locations:  meeting rooms at  
office, at desk at work, in the living room / media room / kitchen at  
home, etc.  It's primary purpose other than browsing web would be to  
access online libraries of PDFs and so forth.

I sort of sense some general design activity and exploration  
occurring around this space of late.  Palm's "not-a-notebook" seems  
like a bit of an odd entry, but it looks as though things are moving  
in the indicated direction.

So here's the question:  is Palm's Foleo entry actually interesting  
to anybody on-list?  Has Hawkins et. al. demonstrated the same kind  
of keen product management / definition insight with this that he did  
with the Pilot, or is this an odd experiment doomed to the scrap heap  
of tech history?  I mean, if you bought one of these --- how would  
you use it?  Other than just hacking around on it;  would this really  
become part of your standard workflow?  Would you carry it  
everywhere?  Would it replace a laptop?  Why or why not?  Does this  
form factor actually need a keyboard?  Etc. etc. etc...  For the e- 
Book devices --- do e-ink and the newer display technologies need to  
evolve significantly to make this sort of thing usable?  Are  
designers of those devices actually focusing on the right things by  
emphasizing those specific technologies so much?  What's the right  
price-point for this sort of thing?  Cf.:

   http://linuxdevices.com/news/NS2494029776.html

   http://www.learningcenter.sony.us/assets/itpd/reader/

   http://www.irextechnologies.com/products/iliad


Thoughts appreciated...


jb


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