The Personal Form Factor

The desktop computer used to be the hub of your digital life. Then the smartphone joined the family. The tablet was supposed to fit in between those two, and the smartwatch was your phone companion. In the end, the phone became the new digital hub; your most personal form factor.

The smartwatch seemed poised to take over that role, with a new ultra-portable form factor, and a promise to untether you. And it has indeed turned out to be great, for some, but is completely irrelevant for others, and even at its best, it did not succeed in replacing the smartphone as the single device you take with you. In fact the whole family of device categories seems to have stabilized in recent years: the tablet is great for some, the tiny laptop is great for some, the big laptop is great for some, and the giant high-end PC — the “truck” — is great. For some.

Remaining at the center of it all, though, there’s your smartphone. With increasingly mature operating systems, it can increasingly do more things for you. It’s not too difficult to make an argument that most people could cut out every other form factor, keep only their smartphone, and still get by perfectly fine. Some do already, I’m sure, which is a factor that no doubt will help inform the next category of personal devices.

There’s probably always going to be room for multiple form factors and screen sizes, one for each specialized use case. In between all of these, however, there’s likely to still be a single hub device. Is it a future watch?  Is it a pocket sized rectangular slate with cell capabilities? Let’s speculate, because that’s what this blog does.

A New Category

Most successful hardware categories seem to share a few traits:

  • They solve specific problems
  • They are easy to interact with

From a technology point of view, the only constant has been miniaturisation, resulting in increasing amounts of power being available at increasingly lower costs. The biggest barrier to physical device miniaturisation however, perhaps more-so than battery concerns, has been an interaction model that just hasn’t kept up.

The smartwatch UI is impressive, but despite valiant attempts, a whole slew of actions are still much better done on your phone. Perhaps one day when rock solid voice input mechanisms, digital assistants, gestures, and other magical science fiction interaction methods reach a combined threshold of quality, the watch might replace your phone, but until such a time, the watch is unlikely to replace the well-tested benefit of a big screen. And so for our most personal device, we’re likely stuck with traditionally proven interaction models like tapping buttons to do actions. Fitt’s law suggests the same: the bigger a button is, the easier it is to tap. (That might sound obvious, but the actual math has been done to prove it too.)

Remember when it was claimed that Apple would never make a phone larger than 4″ because touch targets would be out of reach for single handed use? Yet here we are. Given the current interface limitations, the challenge is propping as much screen into as pocketable a form-factor as possible, while still letting you reach the most important actions with a single hand.

Incidentally, if mobile VR ever takes of, which seems likely, the screen will have to be high resolution, and as scratch-resistant as possible. When you’re looking straight at something that’s an inch from your eye, every speck of dust shows up. As such, it would be really nice if the device doesn’t scratch just by being pocketed.

Big screen, one-hand operation, pocketable, doesn’t scratch? Tall order.

Fold It

Remember the Nintendo Game & Watch? For its time, it had a pretty big screen (with room for more), was pocketable, and barely scratched.

Donkey Kong Nintendo Game & Watch, 1982 (Wikipedia)

We’re probably not looking at the next iPhone up there. But we may be looking at the inspiration for Microsoft’s next attempt at a phone. With zero marketshare to speak of, Microsoft is desperate to either invent a new category they can own, or just stand out as unique. They might not succeed in doing so, but they might well try. In a way, they already tried it once, with the Microsoft Courier, and arguably got a few things right, way before its time.

The foldable form factor solves a number of problems that are increasingly becoming evident: $800+ pocket devices that go splat when you drop them are arguably fundamentally flawed in their design. Since transparent aluminium hasn’t been invented yet, it’s probably time someone started experimenting with form factors that are just slightly more durable than a sheet of thin glass. In fact, Lenovo has already gone down this path in a tablet form factor.

Maybe the next category of devices isn’t foldable. Maybe it’s bendable. Maybe it slides or transforms. Maybe there are three screens, of which two are hidden when the clamshell is closed. Maybe we’re just looking at a magnetised keyboard case.

Whatever it might be, such a new device is probably going to need new interaction models that can scale to multiple screens. What might one-handed operation look like on a dual-screen folded device — will the interface adapt and place important interaction only on the one screen? Only near the bottom? What happens to the UI when you rotate the device? Would you want a pen?

6″ is too big a phone for most. Surely no-one in their right mind would want a 7″ phone, right? It just so happens that if you put two 5″ phones next to each other, the combined screen would be about 6.4″. It would be close to a square in its aspect ratio, somewhat like a book:


Would it work? Impossible to tell, and it would depend on a beautiful combination of hardware and software. Like the good old 1982 Donkey Kong Game & Watch.

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