Designing for Extremes Uproots Industries

by April 15, 2009

In the product design documentary, Objectified, Dan Formosa of Smart Design noted that "what we need to do to design is to look at the extremes. The middle will take care of itself."

I was reminded of this great quote when reading The Netbook Effect: How Cheap Little Laptops Hit the Big Time. In particular:

"Mary Lou Jepsen didn't set out to invent the netbook and turn the computer industry upside down. She was just trying to create a supercheap laptop. In 2005, Jepsen, a pioneering LCD screen designer, was tapped to lead the development of the machine that would become known as One Laptop per Child. The miserly constraints spurred her to be fiendishly resourceful. Instead of using a spinning hard drive she chose flash memory—the type in your USB thumb drive—because it draws very little juice and doesn't break when dropped. For software she picked Linux and other free, open source packages instead of paying for Microsoft's wares. She used an AMD Geode processor, which isn't very fast but requires less than a watt of power. And as the pièce de résistance, she devised an ingenious LCD panel that detects whether onscreen images are static (like when you're reading a document) and tells the main processor to shut down, saving precious electricity."

"But Jepsen's design trickled up. In the process of creating a laptop to satisfy the needs of poor people, she revealed something about traditional PC users. They didn't want more out of a laptop—they wanted less. In a single year, netbooks had become 7 percent of the world's entire laptop market. Next year it will be 12 percent. Netbooks are so cheap, they're reshaping the fundamental economics of the PC business. Nearly every company in the PC industry has had its game plan uprooted by netbooks."

"We started inventing technology for the bottom of the pyramid," Jepsen says, "but the top of the pyramid wants it too." This bit of trickle-up innovation, this netbook, might well reshape the computer industry—if it doesn't kill it first."

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