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iPhone consumer appeal reshapes embedded design

Posted: 18 Apr 2008     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:iPhone  embedded systems 

The trend toward standardised platforms for development of embedded systems is almost certain to accelerate, according to a panel of engineers who study consumer behaviour. Many of the reasons for their conclusion are embodied in the most influential consumer device of the past year: Apple's iPhone.

Jason Smart, director of interaction design at Smart Design, referred to the iPhone as the epitome of "user-centered design," echoing the words of moderator Patrick Mannion, editor-in-chief of Tech Online, who called the iPhone "a feat of software design and consumer enablement."

David Carey, who heads the "de-engineering" firm Portelligent, praised the iPhone poetically as a "glass cockpit" whose most significant feature was "almost dispensing fully with the keyboard" and directing the user toward the device's touch-activated screen. The success of iPhone is influencing engineers to reconsider the way consumers use electronic devices, Carey said.

In turn, this reconsideration has shifted design emphasis away from hardware embedded in a device and toward software that enables applications and defines the user interface.

Carey said that when his company reviews a device, an initial step involves taking it home for "the wife and kids to test." He wants to see if the user interface allows his relatively non-technical family to engage with it immediately, without resorting to the user manual. He said the failure rate in this test is "abysmal." Nine of 10 devices tend to pose "some significant wall to usability."

'Usability wall'
Elaborating on the "usability wall," Robert Day, VP of marketing at LinuxWorks Inc., cited the VCR as a classic "wife-and-kids test" failure. Few people, he said, ever learned to program or even set the time on their VCR. The antidote to the VCR, however, is TiVo, said Day, which can be operated by children and "non-engineering folks within minutes."

"It's a huge success and it's all software. It's an open-standard platform, it's reliable and it has a good user interface."

As further example of using standard software to simplify an embedded system for consumer ease-of-use, offered by John Graff, VP of marketing and customer operations at National Instruments, were robotic toys designed for Lego. When developing an interface that children must understand, "less is more," said Graff.

When the toys succeeded, said Graff, they prompted his engineers to think differently about designing non-consumer devices. "We were taking functions out of it and putting them into a professional environment."

The panelists agreed that simplifying an electronic device, to make it more user-friendly, tends ironically to require a higher level of complexity in software design. "There are layers of functions in devices," said Smart, "and none of it is very coherent." The solution is another layer of software " complicated in itself " that "makes a very complex application seem very simple."

Cost factor
Another reason for shifting toward more standard platforms and a broader dependence on software, said Carey, is cost. "As chip design costs go really stratospheric," engineers are getting "used to the idea that last year's hardware design is really adequate," at least for another year. For much less expense, he said, software innovations can breathe new life into old chips. "We need to abandon the notion that hardware innovation in the inside is the key to success."

Engineers should be asking, he added, "How long can I whip this horse before it really is out of date?"

A further trend forcing designers to layer over hardware with software applications is the need to integrate different devices in a single environment. An example is the dashboard of a car, which is fast becoming a display screen, offering everything from audio and video to engine diagnostics, satellite navigation and traffic alerts. Designing hardware that effectively stitches together the various elements of this electronic dash in every make and model is a recipe for confusion.

Said John Graff of National Instruments, "A range of devices, all functional in there, can't meet time-to-market unless there is a measure of integration in those components," integration that requires "a lot more focus on design of software."

'Demi Moore's Law'
Circling back around to the genius of iPhone, Portelligent's Carey compared Moore's Law to its consumer alter ego, "Demi Moore's Law." Although digital electronics can indeed double capacity and power every 18 months," said Carey, "the user's ability to take on all this technology" can't keep up. "Our brain does not double every 18 months."

He noted that while many of Apple's competitors in the mobile phone industry struggle to keep pace with Moore's Law, flooding the market with new models and new applications faster than consumers can absorb the "innovations," Apple has moved "very slowly," offering only two or three variations in its basic product since its inception.

"Apple is very satisfied to go very slowly, shipping its product and very slowly bringing the consumer along," he said. "Sometimes you have to slow down to speed up."

- David Benjamin
EE Times





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