Category Archives: Electronics

Electronics – Tales of an e-book reader

About a year and a half ago, I mentioned to some friends I was considering starting a company that would produce e-book readers. “E-whats?” they asked, puzzled. “E-books. Nobody has done them right. Sony has built a nice device, but they’re missing the killer app, which is content delivery. Like iTunes, but for books, newspapers, and magazines.” Their blank stares were really all the proof I needed.

Of course, in November 2007, Amazon dropped the Kindle on us. At which time, I resigned myself with the reasoning that nobody was better positioned to dominate the market than the world’s biggest online book reseller.

Nobody knows how well Kindle is doing, beyond the fact that it’s backordered. Is it demand or supply chain problems? Who knows. But some people have turned their nose up at the Kindle for a variety of reasons:

  1. You’ll pry my paperback out of my dead, cold, hands.
  2. Showing off my bajillion-book library makes me appear cultured and refined.
  3. The iPhone is better positioned to become the perfect platform for eBooks. Just wait until the SDK.
  4. The Kindle is hideously ugly.
  5. The Kindle is expensive.

(1) and (2) there is simply no arguing with. People enjoy the sensuality of a book – the feel of the cover, the smell of the paper flipping by their fingertips, the aged look of the wrinkles and bent spines. They enjoy displaying their library for all to see. This is unlikely to change anytime soon. The e-book reader is much more likely to be used for casual reading, like a John Grisham or James Patterson thriller. We all read them, but we’re not dying to put them on display for others.

(3) I respectfully disagree with for a couple of reasons. The iPhone is a terrible platform for reading books for two major reasons: battery life and screen technology. E-book readers use a technology called, appropriately, E ink, which looks shockingly like real paper because it is not backlit. Because it is not backlit, and only requires electricity when changing the contents of the screen, it uses only a tiny bit of energy. Backlit screens are more straining on the eye and less calming than reading off paper.

(4) is absolutely true. I’m not sure what the Industrial Design team was going for–retro, or ugly chic. Either way, it doesn’t quite work. To me, it looks like an Apple IIc from 1984. While that design language was interesting for a home computer in the eighties, it’s not the book reader of 2008. My biggest problem with the Kindle’s design is that it’s a little too unashamed about being the anti-book. The keyboard, which is rarely needed, unnecessarily dominates the over 1/4 of the front. I don’t want to feel as if I’m reading off of a fancy electronic dictionary. The entire front should be reading estate. If you’re trying to replace books, don’t make the experience plasticky and tacky. The materials should be solid, smooth, and refined.

(5) is also true. $400 is a big asking price when the device is intended to replace $7 paperbacks. Of course, the product is priced at a premium to start. And nobody knows how many they are selling, because Amazon refuses to disclose.

In my opinion, even more than replacing books (especially hardcovers), the e-book market is better positioned to replace magazines and newspapers. Besides the obvious green benefits (think of the tremendous amount of paper produced, printer, and shipped daily–this would also be a great marketing point), most people throw out their newspapers and magazines at some point. The papers know the end is near, and the industry has responded much more gracefully to the shift than say, the music industry. They’ve launched updated, largely free Web sites with features such as videos, podcasts, blogs, message boards, and polls.

For the portable reader, it’s all about content delivery. You shouldn’t have to lift a finger. Upon waking, the day’s newspaper should be on the device as the newspaper is waiting on your front door. Your magazines should appear as soon as the issue is ready, just as you’d receive them in the mail. Pick your device off its charging stand and go.

Buying books should be easy and fun. And the books should be priced well below the price point of an actual book. I’d pay $5 for a Grisham novel.

Another killer app could be catalogs. People love flipping through catalogs, and although mail-order is heaving its last breath, a modern catalog would let people order just by tapping on the thing they want. You could choose your favorite stores and receive the latest catalog to flip through for free. Think about it: one-touch ordering a pair of jeans from J. Crew or a set of dinnerware from Williams Sonoma. Billed to your account and delivered, no fuss, no muss.

The following is my design for an e-book reader. It is made out of metal and hardened (scratch-resistant) glass, and has a treated interchangeable leather integrated cover and changing stand. There are no buttons. Just like a real book, open the cover to “turn it on,” close it to “turn it off.” The cover is held either open or closed by a magnetic latch. A magnetic sensor turns the device on or off. The rest is controlled by touching the screen. To scroll, move up and down with your finger. To turn a page, brush your fingers across the screen, as if you were turning a real page. Text entry, when required, is done via an on-screen keyboard. Bring up the menu by double-tapping the screen. Otherwise, the menu stays completely hidden. A light sensor activates a front light in dim situations. 

It features Wi-Fi for free over-the-air (OTA) downloads. In range of a free or registered network, Wi-Fi downloads the news and periodicals as they become available.

Browsing books, magazines, references, catalogs, and periodicals is done with an alphabetized “library” interface. Think of it as Cover Flow for books.

Purchases and free downloads are made from the device itself through an integrated store. Documents, like PDFs and other e-books, may be sent to the device for free by e-mailing them to a specific e-mail address. The device would not force the customer to use the built-in store.

Forget e-mail, Web browsing, games, etc. Those applications are well taken care of by existing devices (phones, computers) and there’s no reason to cram low-quality applications into a device that just happens to have Wi-Fi and a screen.

I’m going to work on the interface a bit and post an follow-up in the future. For now, take a look at the case design by clicking on the thumbnail below:

Click for Full Size


Electronics – The iPhone

In an episode which became relatively infamous, I owned 12 mobile phones my freshman year. Not at once, I’d buy a new one and I’d sell the old one on eBay. (That was before eBay was a horrible, miserable place, and trading was actually somewhat enjoyable.) My first phone was the Nokia 3650, which was extremely high tech for the time, but was rather huge and featured a rotary phone pad over which, if humanity has any chance at all, got someone fired. Still, several of my friends were impressed with its internet-surfing, E-mail-browsing, Bluetoothing,  application-loading ability and picked up ones of their own. Symbian, the operating system, was (and, as far as I know, still is) rather clunky and painfully slow to react. Nevertheless, it was a fun phone, but after my poor 3650 faced the “white screen of death” twice, I went looking for a new phone.

The Sony Ericsson T610 was very fetching. It is still, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful phones ever made. Tiny, slightly retro, beautiful materials, great (although somewhat poky) user interface. It also had some of the best preloaded ringtones. It also couldn’t hold on to a signal even if you could visibly see the cell tower 50 feet away. 

The story went on. I toyed with Windows Mobile phones (just… awful), UIQ phones (interesting but never really caught on), Palm (do they even have a quality control department?), Motorola (fairly awful) and other Sony Ericsson and Nokia models. My friends began to play a game of guessing what phone I’d pull out of my pocket next. They never won.

A rendering of my Nokia 6682, for class.

A rendering of my Nokia 6682 I made for class.


I kept buying phones because I kept facing crushing disappointment. My phone purchasing habits finally stabilized as a senior when I settled on a Blackberry Pearl. It made a good companion—it was fantastic at push e-mail (unless it arrived in HTML, a technology that has apparently passed by the good people of RIM), great for texting, and had a solid phone app. On the other hand, many BB application interfaces hadn’t been updated in ages, and things like the calendar are just mind-numbingly arcane. Also, the Pearl was one of many in a line of “multimedia” phones that only had a 2.5mm jack, leaving you stuck searching high and low for a 3.5mm adapter or resigning yourself to the horrible OEM headphones. Whichever engineer thought this was a good idea: you’re out. Did I mention the memory card slot was behind the battery?

Cell phones have historically been a playground for corporations to outright abuse customers and get away with it willy-nilly. SIM locks, contracts, random fees, feature locks, insane roaming rates, Verizon’s user interface dictatorship, $30 car chargers… the list of injustices is unending. Part of the problem is that since inception, carriers have been dictating the specs and design of manufacturers’ devices. There is little room for innovation. 

Who but to break this chain of bullying than Steve Jobs, the biggest bully in the high-tech world? With the music industry by the metaphoric balls, Jobs was able to break down AT&T and make them agree to sell the iPhone on Apple’s own terms. They didn’t even get to see the phone before they signed off on it. 

The iPhone was probably the most hyped gadget, ever. I myself began sweating over how I could possibly scrape together $600 to buy one. It’s not perfect. It’s as closed and restricted as the providers themselves. But its success is going to be insane. 

It’s almost as if Apple crippled the iPhone’s features and inflated its price just to make a point. “We’re going to leave out basic features like MMS and 3G just to prove that people will buy them up in the millions anyway.” And so they did. And so they will. 

The reason is, the iPhone does nearly everything it does do with unsurpassed grace, style, refinement, and usability. First of all, it’s pretty. In terms of usability—I could surf the web on my Nokia 3650 five years ago, but it was a chore. On the iPhone, it’s a pleasure. Want proof? The iPhone has 2% of the market but over the holidays accounted for the most amount of Web traffic from a mobile device. Music is unbelievable on the phone, despite the recessed headphone jack (another person getting a pink slip?). Flinging, pinching, and squeezing information around the screen is both intuitive and downright fun. Apple’s brand has rightfully become synonymous with usability. 

You’ll see plenty of iPhone “me toos!” from the industry. Nearly every new phone over the next few years will be a slab with a big touch screen and not much else. That’s the kind of influence Apple enacts. But they still won’t get it.

In terms of product design, you first have to attract the customer with a beautiful device. You also have to give them functionality they want. But more than this, you have to make the functions it does have perfectly usable—otherwise, they are not useful. If you can’t do all three, you fail. I’ll use the (somewhat strained) analogy of meeting a love interest. You often begin speaking to someone because you find them attractive. You learn about their interests, hobbies, job, and education (features). But those things are meaningless unless you also like their personality (usability). 

Not that Jonathan Ive is infallible. The screen on the iPhone is made out of a brilliant, hardened glass that simply does not scratch, no matter how much you use it. This is so thrilling I’m almost speechless. I’m sure more than a few people have ended their lives over trying to install screen protectors on touch-screen devices—I know I’ve let out audible screams of despair from steam-filled bathrooms (it reduces dust) trying with futility to install those things without bubbles or dust underneath. On the other hand, the whole “i” team still insists on putting shiny chrome somewhere on their products. Seriously, guys, just look at the mirrored finish of an iPod that has not just come off the line. It’s a scuffed up mess. It scuffs if you look at it too hard. 

After all, why should we want to put such a pretty thing in a case? Especially the hideous ones the accessory market has put out. If you use the right materials, there’s no need. And that’s why iPhone’s screen has gotten me so excited. 

I’m also not totally sold on the touchscreen keyboard. Maybe my thumbs are just stubby and fat (they are), but I don’t enjoy typing on it. Despite Jobs’ disdain for it, I loved my Treo 680 for typing. [A little birdy, however, tells me the 3G iPhone, due in 60 days, will have a 4.25″ screen (.75″ larger) which should make typing somewhat easier.] 

In December of ’06, well before the iPhone was announced, I created my own phone for my Engineering Graphics class. It featured a scrolling ring that could also act like a D-Pad by pressing it in one direction, a Xenon flash and autofocus lens, videoconferencing, and a slide-out keyboard for texting. The scroll ring and edges of the phone glowed different colors to indicate different things, like a missed call (I’d like to see at least an LED on the iPhone for this). Like the iPhone, it had a touch screen, a wide-screen Web browser, and a scratch-resistant screen. 



In retrospect, I like the iPhone’s method of scrolling better. But I still think I’d prefer having a real keyboard. 

After all, it’s the usability, stupid!