Why We Should Make the Most of the Tech We’ve Got
Designing for fancy new technology can mean we ignore the elegantly practical tech we already have
You’re probably familiar with a scenario like this: You get into your car and all you want to do is pair your phone to the car through Bluetooth. But to do so, you must wade through a whole menu of items, put each device in pairing mode, and fail a few times before they finally pair. The same goes for pairing a speaker or other devices.
If you’ve already resigned yourself to this situation as just an inevitable inconvenience of the modern world, let me tell you a story about what might have been — and what could still be.
Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just tap your phone to a device to pair it? Instead of the multi-step process required for setting up a Bluetooth connection, imagine coming home to do this: Tapping your phone to a dock near the entrance, which instantly pairs it to every device in the house. Your television, smart speaker, baby monitor, and everything else, seamlessly connected to your phone in a single touch.
This is exactly how Bluetooth was supposed to pair to devices. Not only that, but a fully functioning prototype and planned product line of the sort I just described existed as far back as 2008, created at Palm, of all places, by researcher Manu Chatterjee. I didn’t know about it myself until 2014, after getting to meet Manu at an airport during one of his many business trips.
What Manu described to me back then has stuck in my head for the last five years: a far better way for using Bluetooth that no one else in product design even seems to remember.
Prior to 2008, Manu led Palm’s Advanced Technology group with a charge to compete against Apple. The iPhone was still in its infancy, competing against a host of other smartphone companies (including Palm) that were unsuccessfully trying to tout their complex hardware capabilities to everyday consumers.
“Palm pilot sales were sluggish,” Manu explained to me. “And I realized that we needed practical magic. I was interested in elegance.”
He found it at an Apple store in 2007. “What really sold the iPhone,” he explained, “was the image of an iPhone with the full front page of the New York Times displayed on it. That experience was superior to all of the technical acronyms that were being used to sell other smartphones. Having the web in your pocket was vitally important to being connected.
“I realized that we needed something like that.”
Manu went home and built a speaker dock that enabled the instant connectivity I described above. Estimated retail price for the consumer model? $25.
It was practical, elegant magic, the kind of user experience that Apple is famous for. It was so compelling, it wound up being featured in a Dr. Dre/Eminem music video.
The approach was so elegant, in fact, that (according to Palm legend) Steve Jobs had a notable reaction when given a private demo of Manu’s wireless charger. Jobs picked up the prototype, studied it — and promptly threw it against a wall, enraged that his own team hadn’t created it first. Manu got a big bonus from that single outburst, because that’s precisely what Palm wanted: to make Steve Jobs mad.
Manu’s technology was even presented at CES 2009 by Palm (above). He created another iteration of the dock that not only paired a phone to Bluetooth with a touch, but also instantly streamed music to the integrated speaker.
When he presented the prototype to Hewlett Packard (Palm’s corporate owners), the VPs at his demo were ecstatic... at first. But an executive above them took one look and announced, “We’re not in the speaker business.”
The fate of Manu’s product line — and his approach to practical elegance — was sealed. With it was lost the potential for a user experience with Bluetooth that is far different from the one we deal with now.
It is difficult to research connectivity failure rates for Bluetooth — companies that depend upon the technology aren’t exactly incentivized to publicly report them — but it’s reasonable to believe they are relatively frequent. From a technical standpoint, Bluetooth is three decades old, slow to transfer data, consumes excess power, and often creates connectivity interference with nearby devices. (Not to mention the security risks associated with such an old connectivity protocol, a continued thorn in the side of the Internet of Things industry.)
We should start by thinking about how to use technology that’s already there, but in a new way.
Despite all this, Bluetooth has basically become a default prerequisite of a device deemed to be seamless, appealing, modern. When it works, to be sure, the convenience is great. But if a given Bluetooth device has even a small chance of failing to connect any time it’s used, then the consumer is bound to come up against that frustration during the product’s lifecycle. And the expectation that every device must have Bluetooth only compounds the problem: The more Bluetooth devices in close proximity, the higher the likelihood of failure.
But there’s some good news within Palm’s tragic tale of great UX design lost to shortsighted thinking: There’s still an opportunity to make devices like his today. It just awaits the right startup or major manufacturer to make the best of technology we already have. In this case, it’s near-field communication, which exists in most modern smartphones. It’s what Manu’s product used to make the initial one-tap connection, handing it over to Bluetooth for the heavy lifting only after that bridge was built.
There’s an even more important takeaway: As UX designers, we must always think in terms of practical elegance. It can never be about the tech itself, and it’s rarely about new tech. Rather, we should start by thinking about how to use technology that’s already there, but in a new way. (Consider what Square did to create a smartphone-based payment system. Rather than relying on new protocols, they simply used the headphone jack.)
Without a primary focus on practical elegance that’s shared across an entire organization — or indeed, an entire industry and culture — we risk the chance of losing other great products while taking on another set of increasingly aggravating alternatives.