Bang & Olufsen - CE UI Tuesday, July 19, 2005

So, conventional wisdom about Bang & Olufsen is, as far as I can tell, overpriced, bad sounding junk for the “Jet Set”. ("Jet Set” being a particularly old fashioned way of saying “stupid, snobby idiot”, given the context.)

I think that it’s easy to try to slot Bang & Olufsen gear in with the ultra-high-end audio equipment because their prices do tend to be significantly higher than typical CE—your Sony/Denon/Harmon Kardon/Pioneer/Panasonic lines. There’s no question that it’s expensive stuff.

What brought this to mind recently were a pair of recent trips to Costco and BestBuy. I was looking around at trends in CE design, and it was truly depressing.

Take phones. Every major company has a multi-handset wireless phone “system” on the market at this point. And every one of the ones I saw in these stores, without exception, was a button-happy nightmare in plastic. Each was trying to “out-feature” the other, with a million conferencing modes, color screens, GHz differences, and more elaborate “space-age” styling ("space-age" being a particularly old fashioned way of saying “horribly silver-and-chrome-tastic”, given the context).

Oh, and every one cost about $100. And—no doubt—would last a few months, just like their predecessors did.

What’s funny is that there’s a really, really good example of terrific telephone design (both UI and industrial) out there—and it comes from Bang & Olufsen.

Back in the late 90s, Bang & Olufsen released their Beocom 6000 series of cordless phones. These phones were quite minimalist & modern in the B&O style, and centered around a simple UI based on a circular “scroll wheel” with a button in the center.

The 6000 allowed up to 6 handsets to be used, and had a phone book that allowed 250 names to be added: the names added automatically synchronized between the handsets, as did caller ID and the redial lists.

Menus were simple: scroll through the stripped-down menu system with the wheel, click the center button to accept (or move to a sublevel). Name entry was easy, because the letters could be selected quickly with the wheel—and lookups went just as fast.

Even the battery management was fantastic: the handsets lasted forever, and the charging system did not kill the battery in a week. Or a year. Or two years.

Bang & Olufsen recently updated the phones with the Beocom 1, which: adds two-line capability; refines the existing concept with a better display and menu system; improves sound and call handling; allows more handsets; and offers even better battery life. What it does not do is make it more complicated.

It works incredibly well. Stripped down, stylish, not overly-featured. Expensive, but worth every penny. You can learn a lot about how to design really good consumer-product UI from this phone system.

Take a look at the page above, and then look here. Seem familiar?

B&O was there first, thinking different… and smart companies learn from the best.

The Limited Saturday, July 09, 2005

We’re asked, every so often, why we don’t offer a time-limited full version of SuperDuper!.

It’s pretty simple, really.

If you’re going to time-limit a program, you have three choices:

  • “Cookie" the user’s system in some hidden way so you know when the program was first run, and can therefore calculate when you’re supposed to expire.
  • Automatically identify the system and phone home, asking some server when the copy should expire, and not allowing execution without internet access
  • Force the user to provide personal information, including an email address, so that you can give them a key that expires (and the key, which need not be hidden, can contain the “cookie")

The first, in my opinion, is right out. I hate it when programs hide things on my system, and while I understand why they do it (see above), it’s just the wrong thing to do, especially for a backup program. A backup program that writes hidden stuff to the source volume? I don’t think so.

The second is nasty for obvious reasons.

The third, while doable, forces users to announce themselves to me when they just want to evaluate the software. We’re very conscious of privacy here, and a lot of people are understandably touchy about this kind of thing. The last thing we wanted to do was to alienate them right out of the gate, and force them to register just to take a look.

So, given those not-so-good choices, we decided to:

  • Provide useful, free functionality in the unregistered version of SuperDuper!, including technical support and full documentation
  • Never “expire” or take away the free functionality we’ve provided, even in future versions
  • Offer an evaluation key, on request, for users who want to examine its full capability (all we ask is that you drop us a note and tell us what you thought)

So, now you know!  I think this has proven to be a good compromise, and while it doesn’t satisfy everyone… what does?

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