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State of the Union: Product Design in Consumer Technology

Apple iPhone Blueprint

Once upon a time, consumer tech shoppers were stranded in The Land of Blah, locked in on all sides by a sea of big boxes and bulky CRT monitors, huge cellular bricks with jutting antennas and unwieldy consoles that inspired the masses to hide them in TV cabinets.

But then something happened. A transformation took shape, as tech went from ugly ducklings for basement-dwelling geeks, to stunning, well-designed products with mainstream appeal.

When you talk about product design, there are really two things you’re talking about: The way a product is designed to work, and how it looks. The gadgets we love the most tend to be the ones that satisfy us in both ways. When companies started focusing on the design as much as the specs, it ushered tech away from the nerd basement and into the spotlight. And we, its adoring fans, really learned how to drool.

But there wasn’t a single moment when everything changed. The journey to get here was gradual, with many influences coming together to lead us into today’s design-oriented ethos. So to understand where we are now, we need to first look at where we came from.

That Was Some Powerful Ugly…

I recently saw a blog post titled “The Consumer Electronics Industry Is Ugly,” and it got me thinking about design. The writer believes consumer electronics is about companies throwing variations at the wall, to see which ones stick. There’s merit to this theory: How many tablets, boasting various sizes and displays, are available now? But how many offer a truly different experience?

Then there’s last fall’s New York Times article, “Up From Ugliness.” Writer Ross Doughat made the point that society was once mired in function-over-form, but transcended it across an array of areas. Raw concrete buildings, leisure suits and wood-paneled cars gave way to a new focus on beauty, with people embracing tree-laden downtown walking areas, curated apparel fashions and, yes, beautified technologies.

I believe this is true, particularly when I look at the journey that laptops took from the IBM 5100 (1975), the first mass-market portable computer.

Same goes for smartphones. The first commercially available one was the Simon (1993), an $899 brick of a phone that actually boasted a touchscreen.

Should we talk about gaming? Hard to believe how far we’ve come since the Magnavox Odyssey, the first home gaming console to hit the market in 1972.

To be a tech enthusiast back in the day was to concede that external design didn’t matter. If you wanted, say, a computer, your choices were either beige… or beige.

Many give credit to Steve Jobs for imbuing technology with artistry. Sure, the original Macintosh wasn’t a looker by today’s standards, but it grabbed attention and established an all-in-one design ideology that Apple still uses today. Then, after the honcho’s departure and return, those computers got a shakeup with the clamshell iBook G3 Mac laptop and iMac, which cemented Apple’s reputation for stylish devices and paved the way for future iPods, iPhones, iPads, MacBooks, MacBook Airs, and iMacs. 

That Jobs didn’t pioneer many of his company’s most famous technologies may be a contentious point, but what seems to be beyond argument was his ability to turn the public’s attention to something computing devices had been sorely missing – aesthetics.

The Evolution of Our Tastes

Over time, we began to see thinner, lighter laptops and sleeker form factors, with more color options spanning fruit flavors, snowy white, brushed silver and others. A choice of materials (like high-impact plastic and metallics) emerged, cast in different casings and thicknesses, across both Macs and PCs. Now the likes of IBM, Compaq, Asus, and Lenovo are in a race to see who can come up with not only the most powerful computers, but also the sexiest ones.

Computers weren’t the only tech that got made over. Portable music players went from mechanical, cassette-driven Walkmen and huge (by today’s standards) CD players to little hard drive-packing MP3 players. Now the technology has slimmed down to fit inside phones, or is worn on lapels and wrists. Across the board, we saw refinements — from smartphones to gaming consoles to televisions — as well as the emergence of product categories based entirely on form factor, like modern tablets. Even vacuum cleaners, kitchen appliances and entertainment systems got the beautification treatment.

Fat knobs and joysticks became nimbler controls and d-pads, gadgets favored smaller (and rechargeable) lithium-ion batteries instead of bulky alkalines, intrusive external antennas disappeared, and razor-thin profiles became the new “It” factor. And at some point, hardware buttons were deemed bad, as touch-enabled everything came into vogue. There are now capacitive displays integrated in products from phones to computers to gaming consoles to refrigerators, and more.

In other words, as time went on, makers gave us “sleeker,” “more powerful,” and “better-looking.” And we responded. (Boy, did we ever.)

 

How We Became Aesthetes

So how did people jump on the design train? That can be tough to suss out, but I have some theories. I think the rise of cable TV and broadband internet had an impact on our culture, in general. When a nation of people have unlimited access to Style Channel, Style.com, HGTV and shows like This Old House, is it any wonder that they’d learn to appreciate design?

While not everyone can afford a whole new wardrobe or a home renovation, some can at least indulge a new tech purchase. And so consumers began to see their devices not just as tools, but also as lifestyle products. And they realized that the phones they held to their faces were in fact accessories, like earrings or cufflinks, and that their gaming console, audio systems and home computers were as visually key as the furniture and artwork in their living rooms.

But even if this theory is true it would only tell half the story. I believe companies are also hitting a collective wall, spec-wise. Manufacturers have figured out how to make tinier circuits, and more powerful CPUs and energy-efficient displays that don’t require massive batteries. Capacitive screens also did wonders for product design, freeing makers from having to cram keyboards and buttons all over their devices. The alternative inputs we’re beginning to see, like voice and visual recognition, will help the cause. But ultimately, questions remain — how many cores can you stuff into a processor? How much RAM can you fit in? And when will the next leap in battery innovations arrive? Manufacturers are working on these things, but until the next wave of advancements hits, it’s natural to wonder where they’ll take us next.

So what exactly is the “State of The Union” in product design? Well, if manufacturers can only go so far on the inside of a device, it stands to reason that they will turn their attention to the outside. And they have. They are giving us sexy products at a time when we are ripe to appreciate them.

Case in point: Would Nokia’s Lumia line of Windows Phones be so buzzworthy if they weren’t also so stylish?

Outlook

When it comes to what to look for next, there has been some buzz in a few key areas. And if the past is any indication, these changes will come with some stunning flourishes, hot colors, and clean, beautiful lines.

Wearable technology has gotten attention lately. Both Apple and Google are reportedly delving into stuff like smart watches and bracelets, which is likely to spark mass interest. And if wearable tech gains traction, could it even lead to smart(er) clothing? That would surely give a whole new meaning to the word “mobile,” no?

Speaking of mobile, there has been a lot of talk about flexible displays. Big screens are on trend, sure, but few users want to be burdened schlepping around a behemoth device. With flexible displays, though, smartphones and tablets could become the most pocketable (and least fragile) yet, all without sacrificing screen real estate. Word has it Samsung is shooting for a debut of some bendy screens sometime this year, and Nokia also showed off some concepts last fall. I doubt they’re the only ones looking into this.

Then there are ultrabooks. The race toward thinner, lighter, faster will see even more light-as-a-feather laptops until they become downright commonplace. In fact, since the price of solid state drives are going down and Ivy Bridge Core processors are on the horizon, I’d wager they will become ubiquitous sooner rather than later. To distinguish one from another, I could see makers having some fun with exteriors, offering them in more colors, sizes and materials.

Modern televisions are now sporting 3D, apps or other internet features baked into an ever-leaner shell — like Samsung’s 9000 Series LED TV, which is less than a third-of-an-inch thick. What else can makers do then? Well, in Samsung’s case, the units come with a secondary display built into the remote, which plays different content. This seems like a novelty, though. I think it’s likelier that we’ll see more camera lenses peeping out from TV fronts, to enable easy breezy video chat. (And if there’s an integrated camera, can more Kinect-like motion controls and facial recognition be far off? At CES, Lenovo unveiled a TV with facial recognition, courtesy of Ice Cream Sandwich. It’s heading to China, but I spoke to a rep who seemed optimistic about a U.S. launch in the not-too-distant future.) Samsung also demo’d face, gesture, and voice recognition systems in their high-end TVs at this year’s show.

For gaming consoles, it may be obvious to mention touchscreens, but a lot will ride on the Wii U launch. Jon Rettinger saw it up close at CES, and he was pretty impressed, but it does take a look at it in action to understand how cool it is. So the question is, will the public “get it” just from the marketing? If so, others will surely take cues from this slick Nintendo console. (On the handheld side, Sony’s touch-enabled PS Vita has certainly made in-roads, so that could bode quite well.)

While outward-facing features or looks alone can’t transform a useless device, what is increasingly becoming clear is that end users want the whole package: Robustly spec’ed internals, elegant features and UI, and a beautiful shell to house them in. These days, nothing less will quench our design-oriented tastes.

So hang tight, kids. The future is coming. And when it gets here, it looks like it will be gorgeous.


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Adriana Lee

Adriana is the resident writer-slash-culture vulture who has written about everything from smartphones, tablets, apps, accessories, and small biz...Adriana is the resident writer-slash-culture vulture who has written about everything from smartphones, tablets, apps, accessories, and small biz...


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