Technology Review magazine has an interesting article ( part 1 and part 2 ) about Helio, a Silicon Valley startup which has come up with an innovative phone called the “Ocean“. This phone has a full keyboard, a big screen and host of cool “social connectivity” features. But the most interesting design feature is its dual slider, one vertical and other horizontal. 

Helio is a joint venture between EarthLink and the Korean wireless giant SK Telecom. It is available in US for around $300. I can’t understand why did they go with Sprint?

The key take away here is that design and usability are extremely important. There are trade-offs. In case of Helio all the features made this phone bulky and the shape could not be as ‘pill’ like as the designers wanted. This is a bold new experiment which has cost over $400M and its success is still unclear. But one thing is clear: the need to converge multiple personal  gadgets.

A couple of excerpts from TR to show you the thinking process which went into this design.

The first glint of an answer came, unsurprisingly, from Korea, where mobile communications are a cultural obsession. In Korea, people play mobile karaoke. Teens flock to sports arenas to watch other teens play in video-game contests. And today, a fair number of Korean electronics wunderkinds work at Helio. Dayton calls one of them “Joe Kool–with a K.” Joe Kool is, in fact, Jungyong Lee. Lee, a senior product-planning manager, used to work at SK Telecom. While at SK, he conceived of something novel: a mobile communications device with two slide-out control panels. When the gadget was being used as a phone, a number keypad popped out of the bottom. When it was being used as a music player, you rotated it 90 degrees and slid out a small control panel with the familiar buttons–Play/Pause, Forward, Back, Stop.

Now there was the problem of the “soft keys”–keys that do different things at different times, such as navigate options or open up an e-mail list. Most users expect these soft keys to be in the same basic place, relative to the screen, no matter what they’re using the device for. “The mind builds up relational patterns,” says Duarte. “You remember the thing at the lower right of the thing I am looking at. You associate this with function–to bring up your contact list, for example.” But since the Ocean has different orientations, the user will anticipate soft keys in different places, depending on how the device is being used. So Helio gave the Ocean four soft keys, two on either side of the screen. The dual-slider problem begat the d‑pad problem, which in turn led to radially symmetric soft keys.

Helio’s goal for the Ocean was to allow a user to grab the device in its idle mode and type a few letters of an address-book entry, a message to a friend, or a Web-search keyword. The high concept: all your e-mail accounts, instant-­messaging accounts, text messages, and picture messages would be accessible through one integrated interface.

Go Ocean!