iDesign: Griffin’s Ingenious iGadgets | iLounge Article

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iDesign: Griffin’s Ingenious iGadgets

Some companies specialize in speakers. Others are experts at making cases. And still others, such as Griffin Technology, are jacks of all trades. Founded in 1992, Nashville, Tennessee-based Griffin focused for years on Macintosh-related products before entering the iPod market in 2002. At that point, it burst onto the scene with various pocket-sized electronic attachments, subsequently releasing at least one—the seminal FM transmitter iTrip—you probably already know by name. The wild success of these small and frequently smart accessories enabled the company to expand into other categories, notably including both cases and speakers.

Even today, however, Griffin is still best known for its gadgets. Since 2002, there have been no fewer than 10 traditional, completely portable iTrips, as well as several additional car-only models. Of course, the company has also developed other iProducts: the iTalk voice recorder series, the breakthrough iPod FM radio tuner iFM, and, somewhat amusingly, the flashlight and laser pointer attachment set called iBeam. Intelligently designed and aggressively priced, Griffin’s accessories pointed the way for other companies’ products, inspiring waves of competitors and occasionally clones.

Most of our iDesign features have focused on companies that have enhanced Apple’s iPods through superb execution of conventional ideas. This edition looks at a different and perhaps more challenging route to success: creative, outside-the-box engineering that has repeatedly expanded the iPods’ capabilities and, with thoughtful industrial design as a wrapping, forever changed the way people looked at Apple’s portable media players. Griffin’s various pocket-sized add-ons are the best examples of this strategy actually working, sustaining the growth of a small company into a much bigger and more diverse developer. But creative iPod accessory engineering is also fraught with danger, as it depends on Apple to embrace externally developed changes, rather than punishing those who dare to “think different.” We hope you enjoy this look at Griffin’s ingenious iGadgets.

iTrip the Light Fantastic

Apple had modest ambitions for the late 2001 original iPod: it just wanted to create a cool, easy-to-use digital music player. Consequently, the cigarette pack-sized device was designed to do only three primary things: recharge, output your chosen audio to headphones, and synchronize data when connected with a computer. Most of the early iPod accessory makers embraced these limitations, focusing their efforts on creating simple add-ons such as protective cases. For some reason, Griffin’s engineers approached the iPod from a different direction: they wanted to see it do more. Debuting its first iPod accessories in January 2002, the company released PowerPod, a charger designed to let you use your iPod in your car without headphones, and announced PodMate, an innovative software and accessory package designed to transform an iPod into a universal remote control. Though Griffin killed PodMate before its iPod release, transforming the invention into a PDA accessory called Total Remote, the underlying software technology inspired a new iPod product with different functionality.

That product was iTrip, an affordable, cosmetically complementary $35 FM transmitter that astonishingly used the iPod’s screen and controls for tuning. At the time, FM transmitters tended to be big, clunky, and expensive; C. Crane’s design was typical. Instead, Griffin squeezed an entire FM transmitter into a small, glossy white tube that fit neatly on top of the first- or second-generation iPod and matched Apple’s design perfectly. Gray rubber bumpers on its sides made it easy to remove when you wanted to go back to headphone use, but with iTrip, the early, dock-less iPods could also be used wirelessly with radio-equipped home stereos. Users didn’t need to go back to using wires or headphones unless they wanted to.

Key to iTrip’s small size and low power consumption were its lack of traditional physical controls. Apple offered developers no ability to use the iPod’s screen for features beyond the company’s original audio playback intentions, so Griffin had developed a workaround. Every iTrip came with a CD full of tiny MP3 files, which were installed into an iTrip Playlist on the iPod. iTrip was plugged into the iPod’s powered headphone port, and used the host device’s battery for power, turning on and off automatically depending on whether audio was playing. If you needed to switch FM stations, you just visited the iTrip Playlist with the iPod’s Wheel and selected the appropriate number. After a series of quiet beeps, which were picked up by the iTrip hardware, the station automatically changed. It was a smart and elegant solution to an unnecessary iPod limitation; iPod owners loved it.

Over the years, as Apple released new iPods, Griffin released new iTrips, reinventing the product in a variety of major and minor ways. When Apple unveiled the iPod mini, Griffin came up with a smaller iTrip mini that perfectly fit the new device’s shape. Later, when Apple stripped top-mounting accessory connectors off of iPods, Griffin switched to making bottom-mounting iTrips. Soon, new iTrips were arriving at a rate of one or two per year, matching the releases and new limitations of iPods.

Some of the iTrips were even better than the original. The 2005 iTrip with LCD was the family’s pinnacle, using an integrated screen and simple chrome tuning knob rather than requiring users to install station MP3s on their iPods.

Previous iTrip tuners forced users to interrupt whatever song was playing if they needed to change stations. This one didn’t. The chrome dial control looked great with full-sized iPods, and offered easy, intuitive access to the FM dial. This iTrip could also switch into different tuning modes, including a surprisingly powerful monaural mode, increasing the apparent strength of the signal it was broadcasting to a radio.

Though Apple saw the iPod’s fortunes improve with the continued growth of the third-party accessory market, the company appeared unwilling to keep even key developers in the loop about its upcoming innovations, apparently fearing that its competitors would get wind of its plans and follow suit. Thus, Apple’s decision to abruptly kill the iPod’s top connector forced Griffin and others to rapidly redesign their old accessories, generally with less positive results. Rushed to market, the first iTrip with Dock Connector lost the previous dial-style control in favor of a three-position switch, and didn’t sit right on the iPod’s bottom.

But, as with all iPod accessory makers, Griffin continued to refine its designs, and the results were eventually generally better iTrips. Confronted with the staggeringly thin iPod nano, Griffin created the iTrip nano in the shape of a “sled,” a unique backpack that continued to house the same FM transmitter technology as before, but in an enclosure that wouldn’t snap or hang awkwardly off of the tiny nano’s bottom.

It even included a carrying case to protect the nano, which quickly developed a reputation for showing unpleasant scratches and scuffs. But the real innovation was in software: Griffin rapidly came up with a way to take over the iPod’s screen for use as a FM station tuner, once again eliminating the need for its accessory to include a separate LCD display. Competitors quickly knocked off the sled’s design and the on-screen tuning feature for competing accessories, leading Griffin to decide to stop showing off its products too far in advance of their actual release.

It turned out that Apple wasn’t thrilled by Griffin’s ingenuity. Later versions of iTrip nano—one called iTrip Pocket, the next iTrip for iPod nano (2008)—showed how the company was forced to go back to a separate display for tuning when Apple closed the software loophole that had enabled developers to use the iPod’s OK to Disconnect screen for accessory menus. Other developers predictably followed suit.

Recognizing the increasing demand for in-car FM transmitters, Griffin later evolved iTrip into iTrip Auto and iTrip Auto with SmartScan, both of which included charging cables and easy-to-use station tuning features. While neither of the Auto designs was as warmly received as the portable iTrips, they each provided more streamlined in-car connectivity than earlier, multi-piece accessories.

First, One Talks; Next, Two Talk: iTalk + iTalk Pro

At some point, it became obvious that Apple had picked a favorite partner for iPod expanding accessories, and it wasn’t Griffin: Southern California-based Belkin was given the rights to create the iPod’s first add-on voice recorder and digital photo transfer accessories, with full on-iPod software support provided by Apple. Armed with an early advantage, Belkin’s plainly-named Voice Recorder was good, but it wasn’t great. So Griffin seized upon the opportunity to release a superior competing product, wisely named iTalk.

iTalk took the core features of the Voice Recorder—a miniature speaker and microphone—and improved them: Griffin’s device created better-sounding recordings, and let you hear them instantly through a better-sounding speaker. Then iTalk added a pass-through port that could be used to attach either headphones or a wired microphone for superior recording—a feature completely missing from Belkin’s first recorder, and ultimately added to a second, microphone-less device. Finally, Griffin took styling and pricing seriously, designing iTalk to look more like the iPod with a wider body and metal speaker grille, yet sell for at least $10 less than the Voice Recorder. Like iTrip, iTalk was a runaway success; better execution on functionality, looks, and pricing helped the device overshadow Belkin’s earlier release.

Griffin subsequently released a little-known followup called iTalk 2, which was promised to add both one-touch recording and a digital gain control feature, but ultimately shipped without the extra digital feature and looked identical to the original iTalk except for an extra top-mounted button. A substantially bigger update came in the form of late 2006’s iTalk Pro, which took advantage of a high-quality stereo recording feature added to fifth-generation iPods and second-generation nanos.

On a positive note, iTalk Pro looked great and sold for a lower price than its major competitors, Belkin’s TuneTalk Stereo and XtremeMac’s MicroMemo. A large red light ring in its center surrounded a one-touch recording button, while microphones on the left and right flanked the simple controller. But unlike its predecessors, iTalk Pro stumbled where its competitors succeeded, losing the previous models’ useful integrated speaker and including microphones that didn’t produce recordings as clear as TuneTalk or MicroMemo’s. While attractively priced, iTalk Pro didn’t have any other advantage relative to the others, and was the lowest-rated stereo recorder until Tunewear’s Stereo Sound Recorder staggered into town.

The iPod Gets a Radio Tuner: iFM

Apple had deliberately left many potential features out of its iPods, but few made as little sense to users as the exclusion of a radio tuner: unlike Sony’s Walkmen and hundreds of other pocket audio devices, there was just no way to tune in radio stations while you were listening to an iPod. Surveys showed that people wanted iPods to include radio functionality, but Apple seemed completely unwilling to oblige them. Once again, Griffin thought different. In April 2003, it announced iFM—a $35 FM radio attachment for early iPods. Then, in January 2004, it cancelled the project, only to start again for different iPod models. Finally, in August 2005, iFM actually shipped for fourth-generation iPods and iPod minis. And it was great.

The key to iFM was an iPod-matching FM tuning box that dangled on a white cord, doubling as a remote control. A huge play/pause button on its face was offset by silver tuning and volume switches on its side, plus a toggle to switch between iPod remote and radio tuning modes. When in remote mode, iFM could be clipped to your jacket, providing access to the Click Wheel’s key track and volume features. In radio mode, the screen lit up and provided an easy-to-use digital FM tuner. Most amazingly, iFM included a recording button that let fourth-generation iPods actually record songs directly from the airwaves. It was a stunning product, even at a revised price of $50.

There was only one problem. Over the next two months, Apple killed the top accessory connectors on its new iPod and iPod nano, forcing iFM to be hurriedly redesigned as a bottom-connecting add-on, and imposing other limitations: the newest iPods didn’t support the recording mode built into the old iFM. In December 2005, Griffin released a black iFM with simpler radio and remote functionality, dropping the recording feature, but not lowering the $50 price.

Actually, there was a second problem, as well. After spending years suggesting that FM radio wasn’t worth adding to the iPod, Apple in January 2006 unexpectedly released the iPod Radio Remote, a $50 competitor that not only included its own pair of spare earbuds, but also took advantage of a brand new FM radio tuner Apple had specially designed for the iPods’ screens. Apple told other companies that they couldn’t use the on-screen radio tuner, and flooded stores with its more attractively designed, easier-to-use product. Re-released only weeks earlier, iFM wasn’t dead, but it might as well have been.

Realizing that it had created something cool, but lacking any further direction to take it in with Apple, Griffin tried its hand at creating an iFM for Sony’s PlayStation Portable. The PSP version of iFM included similar radio tuning and remote functionality, while a separate PSP iTrip offered a cosmetically matching FM transmitter solution. Unfortunately for Griffin, the PSP accessory market wasn’t as robust as the iPod’s, and neither iFM nor iTrip enjoyed the success with Sony that they had with Apple. Both products were eventually killed, and Griffin re-focused its attention near-exclusively on the iPod.

Flashy Lights and Remotes: iBeam and AirClick

While iTrip, iTalk, iFM, and a host of charging products such as PowerPod/PowerJolt and PowerBlock were the sources of most of Griffin’s success in the iPod market, the company’s engineers more than occasionally came up with product ideas that were at least gimmicky, if not a step or two shy of crazy. Topping the list, which is also populated by the company’s later Disko, is iBeam.

iBeam can rightfully, and thankfully, claim to be the only pocket-sized iPod accessory that shipped with a warning label for laser-related eye damage. Griffin’s engineers had come up with a $20 set of two top-mounting attachments for iPods that could only be used separately: one was a flashlight, and the other was a Class IIIA laser pointer. Neither was mind-blowing, but they definitely stood out from other accessories being released at the time.

For some reason, Griffin initially appeared to be very proud of the laser pointer, which it touted as visible from a quarter mile away. The pointer didn’t do anything special when connected to an iPod, such as strobe to your music or change emitted light patterns, and it also completely blocked top headphone port access when it was attached. But if you had a cat or dog, it was fun to play with for a little while—assuming you didn’t want to go out and buy a real pocket flashlight or laser pointer for less. iBeam was Griffin at its most impractical, yet the company claimed that it sold pretty well early on thanks to the publicity.

There were many smart Griffin gadgets, too, though fewer and fewer of their names began with the letter “i” after entrepreneurial companies swooped in and filed trademarks for virtually every iWord in the dictionary. AirClick, for example, was a stylish and affordable RF remote control that soon saw its iPod-mounted receiver casing cloned by knock-off artists.

AirClick probably suffered the most when Apple removed the top connectors from new iPods: Griffin’s industrial design team rushed to redesign the nice-looking iPod receiver to mount on the bottom. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much use for a Dock Connector version of AirClick, as it would block off the iPod’s only high-quality audio and charging connector, and the uninspired new casing didn’t do much to sell the unit, either. The pocketable AirClick went away, and was replaced a year and a half later by the smarter, non-portable AirDock.

Conclusions

Since 2002, Griffin Technology has repeatedly proved to be one of the most innovative developers of iPod accessories, though neither Apple nor time pressures have done it tremendous favors over the years: many of its pocket-sized accessories saw their best versions in the heyday of the fourth-generation iPod and mini, and faced with the decision to rush out redesigned products or surrender shelf space to competitors, the company has repeatedly chosen to rush. The consequences haven’t always been pretty, but the result has been generally favorable: Griffin’s iTrip family continues to live on, and its other products, such as chargers and cases, sometimes outsell even more attractively designed competitors. When the company doesn’t lead on industrial design, it tries harder to compete on features and pricing, making virtually any of its offerings a contender and possible best seller.

Yet there is another side of Griffin—the brilliant engineering and industrial design side—that produces truly earthshaking results when given enough time, or enough post-release product revisions, to polish its work. That is the side responsible for Evolve, the company’s gorgeous and nearly revolutionary wireless speaker system, as well as an increasing number of thoughtfully designed cases, and other products that are as yet unannounced. Most importantly, and unlike previous companies featured in iDesign, Griffin’s contributions to the world of iPod accessory industrial design aren’t merely aesthetic, but rather are engineering-driven, expanding the iPod’s capabilities and offering creative workarounds that competitors have felt compelled to clone. Without Griffin, it’s fair to say that the iPod wouldn’t be what it is today; given what it has accomplished, our hope is that the company has a more important role in where both the iPod and iPhone go next.

[Editor’s Note: iDesign is produced by the Editors of iLounge without any involvement from developers or vendors of Apple products. Products are selected fully on merit, with nothing else as a consideration; the subjects of each article see and learn about their inclusion in iDesign for the first time only after the article is published. When possible, we publish a second part to each article, a follow-up interview with the people behind the design. Our goal is to honor impressive products and designers with honest, independent assessments of their best products, and inspire others to create similarly superb options. Additional notes on the creation of iDesign are available here.]

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