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Halfway to nowhere: How hybrid gadgets make two rights a wrong

Designing products must be difficult. Looking to a midpoint between two existing products or form factors is an easy shortcut, but it often produces less-than-stellar results. Though it’s easy to see how these products came to be, it’s less clear why consumers would choose to purchase these lame hybrid technologies. Here’s a look at one of the most recent products trying (and failing) to deliver the best of both worlds, and a look back at some spectalular flops from years past, too.

Samsung Galaxy Note

The promise: “Phone? Tablet? It’s the best of both.” (Source: Samsung Mobile USA YouTube)

What it sits between: See above.

Why it fails: Sorry, Samsung, I’m afraid you’re mistaken. It’s actually the worst of both. The unmissable Galaxy Note ads aired during the NBA playoffs are what inspired this column. The more that I learn about this abomination of a device, the more I want to pick on it.

Samsung galaxy note tablet phone in handInteractions with touch devices — even those facilitated by a stylus — are naturally less precise than those using a keyboard and mouse. It is far easier to navigate crowded interfaces with a cursor than with a finger or stylus. Despite how much I love my iPad experience overall, selecting a hyperlink on Reddit.com on my iPad can be a real chore. The links are too small and near one another for my big, fat fingers. Application developers can work around touch interface constraints to design apps that still deliver high-quality experiences. Alien Blue, an application for surfing Reddit on the iPad, is an excellent example. It skins Reddit in a touch-friendly interface that makes navigation a breeze.

There are two key problems for app developers looking at the Galaxy Note. First, a smaller touch screen will present greater design challenges than a tablet-size screen. This will make it very difficult for developers to deliver promised tablet-like experiences on the Note. Second, applications built with the Note (or the “phablet” form factor) in mind will be less marketable than those built for more popular device sizes. Phablets (don’t even get me started on how much I hate that word) are too niche to provide any application a large audience. This will make it more difficult for developers to profit from applications for the Note. Excellent applications are what make a mobile platform successful, and phablets may lack them.

From a consumer perspective, the Galaxy Note’s crushing uncoolness is the only thing you should think about when deciding to not purchase a phablet. I’m not going to purchase a Scottevest to make room for some cellular monstrosity, and would prefer my phone’s size be determined by that of my pants pockets, not the other way around. Maybe “coolness” doesn’t matter to you, but, you know what? It should. An iPhone and a Galaxy Note could each be a topic of conversation with an interesting guy or gal at a party. One of them will make you appear much hipper than the other. Does that help with your purchase decision?

Other offenders

Thank you, Samsung, for designing a product so ridiculous that I had to go be a jerk about it on the Internet. The Galaxy Note is only the most recent example of disappointing mid-point tech. While obsessing over its shortcomings, I noted other bad products that sit between two good technologies.

iPad keyboard cases

The promise: “The Kensington KeyFolio Expert is the perfect productivity on-the-go companion for new iPad to create content anywhere.” (Source: Kensington.com)

What it sits between: A laptop and a tablet.

Why it fails: Shoddiness and expense. Third-party accessory developers rarely produce hardware with the high level of fit and finish to match Apple’s own hardware. Many iPad keyboards or keyboard-case combos add a lot of ugly clutter to what is an otherwise elegant, even sexy, device. The best option may be to purchase a case that will integrate an Apple Wireless Keyboard, but then you’re adding a $150+ surcharge to a device that already costs $500 to $830. At that point, why not purchase a Macbook Air (starting at just $999 and cheaper refurbished) or other Ultrabook?

Kensington KeyFolio Expert ipad keyboard dock caseFurther, a lot of iPad owners already own laptops, and the typing experience on an iPad — though imprecise — isn’t awful. Applications are even available to help you improve your touchscreen typing skills. Considering all of this, an iPad keyboard case is unnecessary cruft that many owners can live without.

GPS navigators

The promise: A user-friendly way to keep yourself on track, on or off road. (Source: Me)

What it sits between: A map and a smart phone (in hindsight).

Why it fails: They’re behind the times. Technical limitations and the availability of similar experiences on other platforms make dedicated GPS navigators a device of the past for most users. In the age of smart phones, GPS navigators are more notable for their shortcomings than their functionality.

GPS navigator hybrid device mounted windshield in carHigh-quality navigation apps — some made by the same companies that produce physical GPS devices — are available for all smartphone platforms. It seems senseless to purchase one more device when so many of us already possess smartphones capable of delivering a similar navigation experience at a lower price.

George Foreman Grill

The promise: Well, I’ve heard that it’s a Lean Mean Fat-Reducing Grilling Machine(™).

What it sits between: A traditional grill and a griddle, I guess.

Why it fails: Overpromising and underdelivering. Though it seems they’ve faded in the public consciousness, George Foreman Grills have never been more numerous or affordable. The company’s website lists no fewer than 42 different models starting at just $19.99. However, in my personal experience, my house’s excitement after discovering a ten-year-old model in storage has been followed by several months of apathy and disuse. Though the hot dogs it delivered were a godsend when trapped in the dorms in college, my use of the Foreman never grew beyond those simple beginnings. I don’t know if it’s the accompanying grease bowl, the perception of cheapness, or distrust following our own device’s long neglect, but, having just been rediscovered, it’s likely it will be stored away again soon.

George Foreman grill hybrid deviceThis experience caused me to realize that, despite it’s promise, the Foreman Grill never grew to the same prominence as the microwave or toaster oven. Thus, I still await the hoped-for ubiquitous Kitchen Device of the Future.

The good midpoints

Of course, not all hybrid technologies are bad: the most ubiquitous “hybrid” today is the vehicle class combining a gas engine with batteries and electric motors to create a phenomenally useful new product. Or, look at the Nintendo Wii, where Nintendo realized that innovative interactions and middle-generation hardware could make for a game changer (literally).

There are no rules about the utility of hybrid technologies. Good designers will make good, praise-worthy products. Bad designers will make bad products. Don’t worry: I’ll be here to make fun of them. I hope you’ll join me!

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