Analog Angle Blog

Book review: The evolution of consumer electronics

I have a confession to make: my idea of casual reading for enjoyment is books about engineering-project design, development, and fruition. These can range from smaller projects to mid-range projects, and even enormous projects. While the scope, constraints, visibility, and even success of these vary over multiple orders of magnitude, all these stories can work for me if they are well written.

There’s Tracy Kidder’s classic “The Soul of a New Machine” (1981, but still very readable and relevant) which details Data General’s attempt to beat Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) in minicomputers; ancient history as both companies are long gone (Figure 1). That book set a standard by showing, among other points, that one of the project manager’s toughest tasks was assessing when key project milestones were “done enough” and insist “OK, let’s move on” even as the project’s team members wanted to hold back, so they could go from, say, 99% confidence to 99.9%.

Figure 1 Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award, “The Soul of a New Machine” (1981) was an immediate bestseller as it detailed the engineering team at Data General and their attempt to beat arch-rival DEC with their presumably faster, better, cheaper minicomputer. Source: Tracy Kidder

But my experience is that books about technical consumer products are hard to find. That’s why I was pleasantly surprised to read the just-published “Build” by Tony Fadell (Figure 2). If you don’t know him, he was lead project engineer at General Magic, a dismal failure that attempted to develop a personal digital assistant (PDA) unit before that concept was even understood, an experience from which he learned a lot. After that, it was success as project manager for the iPod MP3 and media player (2001) with its revolutionary click wheel (“carry 1,000 + songs in your pocket”), the iPhone, and the Nest Smart Thermostat from Nest Labs. His track record is totally impressive and his insights are even better.

Figure 2 Tony Fadell’s “Build” (2022) discusses practical lessons he learned from failures as well as highly successful efforts while leading design for Apple’s iPod and iPhone and Nest thermostat. Source: Tony Fadell

Note that this book is not a detailed project-battle recounting. It’s mostly about lessons learned the hard way when dealing with expected challenges, unexpected technical issues, management messes, and even legal headaches. It’s a “learn from my good and bad experiences” book, rather than a project retelling, although there are project-specific examples to illustrate key points. It even has many one-page charts summarizing what happened, what to do, what not to do, and why—all based on solid, in-the-trenches experience, with most of it recent enough to be relevant.

I won’t try to summarize the book in the conventional sense; that would be pointless. However, two examples do stand out. When the author was at Apple working on the iPhone, “everyone“ said it had to have a tiny QWERTY keyboard to compete with the then-dominant BlackBerry, especially as touchscreen technology was not as effective, reliable, or inexpensive as it is now (Figure 3).

Figure 3 The Blackberry unit with its mini keyboard was the “must-have” communications/email device, until suddenly it wasn’t; the touchscreen and other features of iPhone soon took user’s hearts, minds, and money. Source: Britannica/Canada

Except for one thing: that “everyone” did not include the one person who really counted: Steve Jobs. He insisted that a keyboard with dedicated buttons was a limiting dead-end and lacked the flexibility needed for the future. So, despite the insistence of the marketing and engineering teams, the iPhone was designed only with a touchscreen. We all know how the iPhone versus Blackberry battle ended.

Another example is the development of the Nest smart thermostat (Figure 4). Nest Labs was eventually bought by Google, but only after its products were a huge success. Fadell tells how the thermostat was inspired by his own frustration with dumb thermostats with no remote access or control capacity. Part of the issue was that thermostats were almost always bought from and installed by HVAC contractors, who were happy with selling plain thermostats such as the classic Honeywell round one at high margins.

Figure 4 The Nest thermostat (above) looks simple but it’s actually a smart, learning, remotely accessible thermostat. The classic round Honeywell unit (below) was developed in the 1950s and is considered an outstanding example of design simplicity and elegance, ease of use, and outstanding reliability; millions were installed and many of them are still in use. Sources: Wikipedia; Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Among other features, Fadell wanted to be able to easily turn up heat remotely in a mountain cabin he used before setting out on a four-hour drive, rather than arrive at a freezing cold cabin. While that seems so obvious to us in retrospect, it was a “crazy” idea at the time.

Having a product idea and knowing how to implement it was only a small part of the Nest story. The intention was to sell it directly to consumers as a do-it-yourself smart-home upgrade, but “smart home” was not yet in the average consumer’s mind or dictionary. So, when Fadell went to consumer-electronics retailers such as Best Buy, there was no aisle for such products. Yes, there was a section in the store for computers, and there was one for TV and audio, but nothing for smart-home add-ins.

As a result, the Nest folks had to work closely with major realities to create product packaging, in-store displays, and consumer collateral. That crisply explained to consumers what the smart thermostat was, why it was a good thing, and how they could do the installation themselves with no need to call in an HVAC professional.

The consumer challenge didn’t stop there, either. While their goals were to have the average consumer replace their existing basic thermostat in 30 minutes or less, many were taking an hour or more. Why? Unbelievable as it may seem, they spent lots of time looking for the regular and Philips screwdrivers they needed. So, after many internal arguments, Nest added a small, nicely packaged multi-tip screwdriver kit to the package, which increased the cost but deemed worth it.

I do have a small, paired set of petty complaints about the book. The title “Build” is bland, lifeless, and almost meaningless—even with the “huh?” tagline “The Unorthodox Guide to Making Things Worth Making”—while the cover art is dull and boring. I don’t blame the author, as in most cases, the publishing house decides on both title and art with little input and no approval from the author. Still, given the products covered in the book, the cover art could easily have been much more evocative and representative of the topic and those products. Fortunately, we don’t judge a book by its cover or title, right?

Have there been any engineering-project “how we did it, what we learned books” or videos that made an impact on you?

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1 comment on “Book review: The evolution of consumer electronics

  1. MWagner_MA
    September 14, 2022

    what’s been a fascinating observation is that over the last 20-30yrs, the idea of “must have” is most times fabricated by marketing or now, social media hype. I remember the IBM PCjr being slammed for its “chicklet keyboard”. Now every laptop has exactly the same type of keyboard (although the keys have a slimmer profile) yet no complaints are heard.

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