Belkin’s clandestine iPod accessory design force, revealed
Despite its Hollywood address, the office building is decidedly non-descript from the outside, sandwiched between a gas station and other buildings that appear to be mixed commercial and residential properties. Only the unique parking lot clued us in that anything unusual is going on here - each parking space is occupied by two full-sized cars, one suspended in the air on a hydraulic lift, one underneath. The suggestion: there are more people working in this building than a traditionally equipped parking lot could accommodate.
Once inside, our suspicions were confirmed; Belkin’s relatively new Industrial Design Group is a growing force to be reckoned with, and additional office space is already being assessed. iLounge was invited to meet the Group and tour its facility, and for numerous reasons came away highly impressed with the experience.
From what we gathered over the course of a relaxed discussion and lunch, the Industrial Design Group is largely responsible for helping Belkin transform from a staid peripheral maker into a design powerhouse. Once content to release relatively generic beige plastic and metal boxes as accessories, Belkin turned a visual corner several years ago, and is now the sort of company that competes with Monster Cable on de-commoditizing computer and stereo components while winning secretive design collaboration contracts from players as big as Apple Computer.
Comprised of former freelance designers, it was this Belkin team that created the iPod’s now-famous Voice Recorder and Media Reader accessories - the ones that appeared from nowhere in 2003 to make Apple’s digital music player decidedly more ambitious. While Belkin released the accessories, they perfectly matched the iPod’s physical appearence, integrated with Apple’s new and simultaneously released iPod firmware, and received direct endorsement from Apple itself. These weren’t just hastily slapped-together novelty items - they were part of a plan to expand the iPod past music, and must have been in the works for months before their release.
Though the Industrial Design Group declined to discuss key specifics of its development of iPod peripherals, the reasons for Apple’s trust in the unit were made obvious through a tour of the Hollywood facility. One internal team develops concepts for new devices, another team creates computer models of the concepts, another makes physical prototypes from the computer models, and yet another works on packaging, including user interface and manual design. Thus, all of the design work from concept to final prototyping of both the products and packaging can be done in a single building - not a word needs to escape the walls until manufacturing is ready to commence.
For a trade secret-obsessed company like Apple, Belkin is thus the ideal sort of partner: proficient in core peripheral technologies, highly capable of riffing on Apple’s own iPod aesthetic design themes, and perhaps most importantly, very quiet. Our tour of the facility took us from a conference room through most of the office’s working spaces, but there wasn’t a hint as to what the company planned next: a design whiteboard was mysteriously covered in paper and only alluded to as something we couldn’t yet see, and sadly, there weren’t any stray prototypes sitting out in open view. Only a single photograph was allowed, and that’s the one at the top of this article. (The other shots come from the company’s booth at Macworld Expo San Francisco.)
Of course, Belkin was happy to talk about its recently announced TuneStage Bluetooth wireless solution for the iPod - which we covered prior to its January showings at CES and Macworld Expo San Francisco - and let us take a second glance at its upcoming line of Belkin NE iPod cases, which we’ve featured in our Expo news and roundup stories. Elegance and fashion - in cases, bags, and possibly other products - seem to be the Group’s guiding themes going forward, and we’ve liked what we’ve seen in virtually all of the company’s near-term designs. We also saw a host of non-iPod products, including accessories made for Dell’s Digital Jukebox, PC games, and home stereos/theaters, many with features that were novel and well thought out.
Across all of these products, several themes were consistent: superb packaging, impressive product aesthetic design, and a serious focus on the needs of real users. We’d noticed these thematic changes for the better when we recently reviewed the company’s in-car TuneBase and TuneBase FM accessories, but hadn’t imagined just how much effort went into making them a reality. Belkin’s boxes, products, and manuals are now reviewed for consistency and ease-of-use in a way that less experienced peripheral makers mightn’t even imagine: cables and ports are color-coded rather than labeled with tiny engravings or icons, a nod to the reality that peripherals are often connected under dim lighting conditions. Certain phrases clearly explain each product’s usefulness, and manuals and web-based wizards are designed to quickly solve problems while reducing frustration. Happy customers buy more products and return far fewer of them.
Certainly, everyone’s interested in knowing the future of the iPod platform, and surely Belkin has exciting plans in store. Its tight-lipped designers noted that they’ve come up with numerous ideas since back when the iPod’s Dock Connector was first revealed, and pointed out that they’ve only released a few products based on those ideas since then. For obvious reasons, we’re looking forward to seeing what comes next - but we suspect no one will hear about it until Belkin’s good and ready.
Jeremy Horwitz is Editor-in-Chief of iLounge.
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