17 June 2005

I've invented something and it's an odd fit. What do I do now?

A friend of mine developed a design to improve user interface with PDAs. It's a pretty cool concept, but it's a very peculiar fit. For an OEM to adopt a new user interface—that's a very important new step. For over a decade now, the manufacturers of PDAs have spent literally billions on trying to make text entry work. The cell phone is gradually merging with the PDA and evolving along the same lines; yet the interface used on cell phones for SMS is not very well suited for it. At the same time, the QWERTY keypad used on larger PDAs like the RIM Blackberry are not very well suited to SMS.* People put up with them, but it's the demand for SMS (and MMS) is driving the growth both in PDAs and in 3G cell phones—not their disappointing user interface.

So you'd think a new user interface would receive an enthusiastic hearing.

Well, when my friend described his idea to me, I was quite skeptical. I strongly suspect that there exists a mathematically ideal arrangement of keys—both the number of keys, and the arrangement of those keys. I think a reasonably efficient team of mathematicians and programmers could find that arrangement in about a week, and I think that arrangement is on file somewhere at Samsung, LG, Ericsson, and Nokia. I also believe that slightly less reliable information is on file with these firms on the cost of these phones, and less reliable information still on the benefits.

What that means is that our typical large 3G/PDA OEM** knows with 100% certainty what the best design is; knows with 75% certainty what the costs of implementation will be; and knows with 25% certainty what the commercial benefits of implementation will be. Each firm has a patent on its version, or can get a patent whenever it needs to, because each firm used slightly different constraints in finding its optimal design. The managers of the firms understand that their estimates are flawed; they know that they err (a lot) on the side of conservativism when estimating the benefits, and on the side of excess when estimating the costs. But statistically, those "errors" are the way to bet, and so they do.
(To be continued)
* SMS: short message service; MMS: multimedia messaging service
** OEM: original equipment manufacturer; VAR: value-added resaler

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