Imagine a scene in the not-too distant future… after a frenzied period of leaks, rumours, claims and counter-claims, interspersed with no-comments, denials, and increasingly reliable and suggestive evidence emerging from component and sub-assembly manufacturers, Apple Inc announce the imminent release of The Perfect Gadget.
The mainstream press attend press conferences and briefings where Apple proclaim that their Perfect Gadget does everything up to, and maybe even including, ordering sliced bread from the online grocer at the precise thickness that it knows you will prefer (a fact derived from a semantic analyses of how you use said gadget).
Socially driven news sites will go utterly berserk.
So how long must we wait until Apple actually makes this announcement? Perhaps we’re only five or ten years away from The Perfect Gadget 1.0.
Converging on Perfection, and Overselling the Dream
In 2007, Apple announced their intent to produce the iPhone. Even before the announcement, the iPhone was hotly debated by potential owners whose excitement was akin to a small child who’s told they could go on the swings and the roundabouts and visit the local shops to buy as much sugar based confectionery as they can carry before going home to watch cartoons, leading some to call it the Jesus Phone. Even I, as a non Apple owner*, was hooked by the hype. Mesmerised by the hope of a perfect gadget.
The iPhone was never going to change the world, but reading back over some of the rhetoric that Apple spun into their press conferences you’d be forgiven if you thought it would. When Apple chief Steve Jobs opened his keynote speech saying “we’re going to make some history together today” it was an archetype of overstatement. Apple are not alone in overselling. The technology industry as a whole is guilty, and the trend is going to increase as gadgets and appliances become less about the technical specifications and more about the design of the hardware and the software – the human factors. Any company that’s marketing something with intangible or immeasurable value, can safely oversell and over-hype their product, because those that buy it want all the hype to be true. They need it to be true to validate their emotional buy-in and to affirm their “lifestyle choice”.
There will come a time however, when The Perfect Gadget really is released. It will herald a fundamental change in the the world of consumer electronics. A ubiquitous device that people don’t want to part with. Users will not upgrade because they will be perfectly happy with it, so eventually there will be billions of units in circulation.
As a seasoned user of seven laptops, seven desktop computers, several hosted severs, eleven different types of mobile phone and three PDAs I’ve probably invested more time and energy than the average punter who uses gadgets. I’ve relied on them for my livelihood, maintained their hardware and software, synchronised their data with the other devices, and failed to part with most of them, so I have a fall-back if the next gadget doesn’t work. So what would be my personal perfect gadget? The gadget that would force me, the moment it’s announced, to call up the person on stage announcing it and say “I don’t care how much, I want the device that’s in your hand, name your price, sir/ma’am, ship it to me now“. When I wrote them all down, my list of requirements became unwieldy, so I thinned them out to a manageable core that can be found later in this article.
Benefiting from the Paradox of Choice
Gadgets with a similar form factor to the iPhone are both blessed and cursed with simplicity. The keyless form factor enables the gadget to be more easily be tailored to the users desire, but such devices are intrinsically harder to differentiate, and their potential can overwhelm.Â Often the key benefit that gets marketed is that a product can do more than the competition, which leads consumers into the paradox of choice. With so much potential, how do they avoid selecting the wrong gadget? They have to fall back on the emotional – they choose the gadget that makes them feel good. This is something Apple do really well, they focus on ‘their way’ of doing things and make that it simple and rewarding.Â The perfect gadget, above all, will be intuitive and emotionally rewarding to use.Â Technological sedimentation and improved software can simplify the multiplicity of capabilities, so a dual focus on the intangible factors of software and hardware design are the critical factors in differentiating gadgets that have identical underlying technological specifications.Â Apple’s name change from Apple Computer Inc. to Apple Inc. highlights its bias shift towards non-technical consumer devices. Indeed, Apple are in an enviable position that when they announce something, there is a lot of interest from consumers who tend do not burden themselves with technicalities: they’re just happy to know that it’s new, that it looks nice, and will reassure their ego of its value, whilst being generally useful and (critically) unchallenging to use.
Enjoy the gadgets, but beware the hyperbole.
*Disclosure: I do in fact own an iPod Shuffle. It was a corporate freebie, so I have no emotional buy-in, but it is far nicer than my two old Diamond Rio PMP300s.
The Perfect Gadget Specification
The perfect gadget should incorporate:
- Everything in the iPhone. Because in a world where design differentiates, the iPhone is a great design. Telephones have undergone two critical form factor changes in the last 30 years. The first was moving the keypad onto the handset, which enabled the whole phone to become mobile. The second is the removal of the keypad from the handset, which removes the limitation on the device to be predominantly a phone. It can now just be a device that has communication as one of it’s capabilities. Apple were not the first people to suggest this: cognitive scientists have been saying it for years, but Apple brought it to market very successfully.
- Screen size vs Portability. Phone screens are too small and a larger screen area is key to making the gadget useful in more circumstances. Something that uses up every available millimetre in the back pocket of a pair of jeans is perfect.
- Flexibility. The problem of a device that’s sized for the back-pocket is that placing it there will put all kinds of stresses through it (because buttocks are not flat) so some degree of flex would be a bonus.
- Induction Charging. I never ever want to plug my device in. Instead, I will have a tables and shelves around the house that are rigged up with an inductive charging system. The shelf by the door is a perfect candidate. Anything left on these inductive shelves would be recharged with no need to connect cables. We already have all the phones syncing over Wi-Fi and bluetooth, so it makes total sense to never ever have to plug them in again.
- GPS/Galileo. I want the unit to know where it is at all times so my whole life can be tracked, then every photo and every calendar event can be correlated. GPS is good, but for Europe, Galileo is likely to be better (because of the control and positioning of the satellites).
- Compass and spirit level. The device must know which way up it is and where it’s pointing, so that when I take photos using the device both location and viewing frustum can be recorded.
- Cameras. Equally spec’d cameras and screens front and back (so that front and back become concepts in software only). The camera image sensors should be interspersed with the screen pixels so video chat is more natural and doesn’t appear as if the other person is talking to a point on the wall just behind you. With a screen on both sides, the image could be viewed by the person taking the photo, and by the subjects, bringing to an end all pictures where the subjects are needlessly and awkwardly tilting their heads when they’re already in-frame.
- Social awareness. The device should be able to associate geographical locations with social conventions. When I visit the library (or the crematorium) the gadget must know this and no matter how loud I have it set it must not interrupt.
- A Thermometer. If the device is below body temperature, it’s in my bag not in my pocket, so vibrating is less to help – it should know this and be more noisy. If it’s below body temperature and flat on it’s back, and its after 11pm, and it’s dark, then I’m asleep, so don’t ring until after 7am… Intelligence and configurablility of all these capabilities is key.
- Peer awareness. Sensing the environment can be enhanced if other sensors can be consulted for comparison. If multiple perfect gadgets are near each other they could (and should) share common information. Rather than each one of them running at full power measuring all things, they could take it in turns. One sampling and sharing GPS position, another doing cell negotiation, etc. Sharing the work could mean reduced overhead and increased battery life.
- Waterproof. Induction charging would make a 100% sealed unit a highloy viabile possibility; and with so9lid state devices operating better than disk drives under increased pressure it could be made waterproof for diving (or mountain climbing if that’s your bag).
… and of course, since the is the perfect gadget …
- Tactile Feedback. A feedback system that makes the surface smoother and stickier as it is exposed to a varying electrical current. The whole experience of using the iPhone is lacking in tactile feedback and whilst a vibration feedback system would improve things, it’s not enough.
- Self Repair. An organic surface, that can repair itself of scratches.
What’s probably not necessary…
- Replaceable or Upgradable Storage. Globally ubiquitous and fast network connections with inexpensive data rates will render on-device storage irrelevant. Users will no longer need to replace their device every eighteen months for the sake of more space.
- Replaceable Batteries. Opportunities to recharge mobile devices could increase exponentially. An induction device in your car seat would mean you never have to take the phone from your back pocket. A induction device in the train table would mean your phone would charge whilst commuting. Your whole desk at work could charge phones, laptops all at once. Batteries will never run out of charge.