Mobile Gadget Form Factors


I'm trying to grok what a perfect mobile device would look like. Note that I didn't say "mobile phone." The way mobile phones are designed today (mostly flips) will stay the most popular and widespread for years to come. But what I'm trying to think about is that as we go forward in time and we have anywhere data access, and we start to use these devices in different ways (media, information retrieval, gaming, etc.), will there be a "combined" device which is capable of being all things to all people?

I tried to take a general view of the devices that are popular today and divide them into the "control" area and the "viewing" area (noted in orange and blue above). There are mobile flip phones which are perfect for wrapping around our face. (What did I hear yesterday on the Prairie Home Companion? "If God wanted us to use mobile phones, he would have put our mouths on the side of our head?" Thank goodness flip phones obviate the need for that particular evolutionary mutation.) We also have mobile gaming devices, which I predict will be defined for next few years by the PSP - with a screen in the middle and buttons on the sides. Then there's the Danger Hiptop style device or the Ogo, with a big area for typing, and a wide area for viewing what you typed. There's the PDA style device with a 8x11 ratio tall screen for reading and controls at the bottom, and there's also the new portable video players like the Samsung Yepp YH-999, mostly screen, with some controls at the bottom. Then finally, there's the iPod, which is mostly controls (so you can find it without looking) and a smaller screen at the top.

These are all radically different devices, use cases and form factors. But it's nice to sort of see them laid out like that no? You can kind of see what the reason for the design is *and* you can feel yourself being drawn towards one or the other, no? I really like the Typing one above. I like the idea of having a big screen on its side that I can type into. But that's probably because I'm a geek. Others I'm sure will pick one of the others that they're more fond of, can imagine fondling and having in their pocket all day.

I think there's a few schools of thought in the mobile and CE industries right now. First is "how can we get people to think of their flip phone as everything?" That's where I am. I've seen people get used to texting and taking photos on their phone, I think it's just a matter of time before they're used to watching videos and doing other things that way that aren't as optimal or specifically designed, but are good enough. But then there's the thought like "let's try to find that magic combination of form and function," which is great, but the problem is that the power and functionality of mobile devices keeps changing so it's been a moving target. But still, there's new interesting devices launched every day (like the LG SV360 that Anita took a pic of), which always make you go "hmm, interesting."

That said, I think things are starting to slow down now though in terms of new functionality, no? We've converged just about everything we can converge into a single device (computers, gameboy, audio, video, GPS, etc.). Now they're just going to get better and more usable and "more converged."

I'm not sure what the ultimate design will be, but I'm pretty sure of what it *won't* be (just from a gut-feeling perspective). I think it won't be gimmicky for one. It'll have to be elegant and not have too many moving parts. Maybe a slider or something, but nothing so complex like the Motorola MPX, which can convert transformer-like into at least three of the designs above. Nor do I think it'll be too odd, with a big square screen or something (obviating the question of Tall or Long in screen positions). My new flat-screen monitor at home is perfectly square and it drives me a little crazy, now that I think about it! But like I said above, it's really all a matter of personal preference.

I'd love a phone that was the size and shape of the XDA Mini II, with a QVGA screen and an OS that supports display in both portrait and landscape modes, but then it *needs* a slide-out data entry mechanism. In other words, what I'm thinking of is a keyboard that you can swap out. One keyboard you add slides one way and is a full QWERTY mini-keyboard (like a HipTop). The other slides the other way and is a normal phone keypad (like the Nokia 7650 or the new Samsungs). This to me would allow the user to choose their appropriate use case, but leave most of the phone alone for development. The QVGA screen would be big enough to play games and videos and maybe you could just go "free-form" with the phone and leave out the snap-on keypads/keyboards all together and navigate iPod style through your pre-loaded lists. Or I guess you could even use a pen (like the XDA works now), but I really think that's going away completely. It just doesn't work well.

But again, all this snapping on and off and rotating of the screen is not exactly user friend of consumer-grade simple, is it? Don't just imagine selling a device like this with all these options, but imagine having a call center that would need to *help* with all these options as well. Looking over at my iPod Shuffle and Mac mini and then thinking about what I just described and suddenly it seems complex and obtuse. :-)

Anyways, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this stuff. Which form factor fits your way of thinking/using a mobile best?


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