iDesign Interview: Belkin, On Collaboration and Solutions | iLounge Article

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iDesign Interview: Belkin, On Collaboration and Solutions

As noted in our sixth edition of iDesign, Apple rarely partners with other companies to develop new products, but when it does, there’s a reason. Harman Kardon, for instance, used its audio expertise to develop crystalline globe speakers for Apple’s G4 Cube and iMac computers, while sporting giant Nike was picked to broaden the iPod nano’s athletic appeal with the Nike + iPod Sport Kit and related apparel. But iPod accessory collaborations have been few and far between, and only one other company is known to have worked so closely with Apple: Belkin, creator of the iPod’s first Voice Recorder and Media Reader accessories, as well as their sequels and many, many other iPod and iPhone add-ons.

This week, iLounge interviewed Ernesto Quinteros, Belkin’s Vice President of Design, to discuss the history and thinking behind the company’s electronic accessories for the iPod. Given the company’s early decision to create a dedicated, in-house industrial design team—an important step that smaller accessory makers rarely take—we were especially interested in understanding how Apple and the iPod influenced the company’s design efforts. Our iDesign Interview with Belkin discusses this, and also the company’s solution-driven approach to accessory development; we hope you enjoy.

1. Belkin has gone through a substantial industrial design evolution over the past five years, and it seemed to start right around the time you started to release iPod accessories. What’s the real story here—why did Belkin start to take ID more seriously, and was the iPod the inspiration or just an early beneficiary?

Ernesto Quinteros, Belkin: Belkin actually began to take the design of its products more seriously about eight years ago with our USB and power products. We were recognized with several domestic and international design awards that actually pre-date our entrance into the iPod accessory space. Design has been part of our approach for some time, and naturally our iPod accessories became a beneficiary.


Cloaked in secrecy, Belkin’s industrial design team (also known as the Innovation Design Group) has won five design awards for its iPod accessories, and many more for other peripherals

Design may have been one of the reasons that Apple approached Belkin to develop the first assortment of third-generation (3G) iPod accessories. Our design, product development capabilities, and strength in retail environments have also contributed to other strategic partnerships. Since the iPod initiative, we have continued to win international design recognition with the majority of these awards attributed to non-iPod accessories in the categories of Networking, Audio/Video, Gaming, Power, and PC peripherals. Some people probably have had limited exposure to Belkin prior to the media frenzy surrounding the iPod, which might be why it seems that design is relatively new for us. We cannot deny that we have absolutely benefited from the media coverage and positive reception of our iPod accessories; it has introduced us to new and wider audiences.

2. In recent years, iPod game developers have said that the first time they saw their games running on the iPod was when they appeared on stage at an Apple event. Take us through the creation of the Voice Recorder and Media Reader for the third-generation iPod—was Belkin responsible for the pretty white shells, did you also pick and test the electronics inside, or were you just given sketches and parts to assemble?

Quinteros: The evolution of those early accessories was an interesting and unique situation. Apple wanted to see these capabilities available on the 3G iPod close to the time of launch, and they wanted to foster the growth of a third-party ecosystem of accessories. At the same time, it was very important to them that details of the 3G iPod were not public prior to launch.

You have to give Apple great credit for their foresight in enabling the iPod ecosystem; many other companies would have tried to do everything themselves, closing the Dock Connector to third parties. Apple has always been very supportive of the developer community, and we believe that the creativity of all the great companies working in the ecosystem have contributed to the iPod’s dominant market position.


Shown here in an early development rendering titled “Dictaphone,” Belkin’s Voice Recorder design was so “right” that competitors were forced to re-think similar-looking creations, while others felt compelled to clone it

Belkin already had a strong working relationship with Apple, mostly for Mac- related products and a few iPod accessories. They approached us and shared some basic information about the upcoming Dock Connector and the media reader and recording interfaces. We had to prove our capabilities and did so by coming up with the electronic architectures and industrial design concepts for the first four Dock Connector accessories.

Engineering was done in parallel in close collaboration with the engineering and marketing teams at Apple since the Dock Connector interface was still evolving. Belkin did the industrial design, although we did have the opportunity to meet with Apple’s design team and incorporate their feedback. Seeing our iPod accessories in the Apple keynote was a proud moment for the design team, and for Belkin.

3. Your portable audio recorders have gone through a fairly substantial evolution over the past five years. Can you walk us through the thinking behind the move from the original mic + speaker combination in the Voice Recorder to the wand-like mic in TuneTalk, and then the double-mic TuneTalk Stereo? Each product was a sequel to what came before, but substantially different at the same time.

Quinteros: True, our audio recorders have evolved over the years. When we developed the first audio recorder we had input from Apple, which we respected and integrated into the features and design. As the iPod accessory eco-system exploded, Apple was supportive and encouraging but didn’t give us as much detailed input into the follow-up products. The evolution of our recording products were driven by the combination of user feedback and several factors relating to the iPod itself.


This model of the Voice Recorder was virtually identical to the final product, complete with protective clear connector cap

The iPod was continuously evolving, presenting us with new challenges at every generation and introduction of mini and nano models. The iPods’ external casings were morphing in shape, size, edge detail, and surface finish. Some models had crisp edges, some softer, while others had full radii that ran the entire length of the exterior. This had a logical impact on the shape and details found on our recording accessories since they were required to mount directly to the iPod. Device mounting also changed over time.


A very early concept of the TuneTalk Stereo, originally conceived as a single-mic system with a port for stereo microphones

Our first recording accessories mounted to the six-pin connector located on the tops of iPods; by the arrival of the fifth-generation iPod, that connector went away and Apple steered everyone to the bottom Dock Connector. We did our best to make a Dock Connector-mounted voice recorder that worked with classic and nano sized iPods.


Tunetalk Stereo’s dual microphone design was planned with consideration for the angles at which the microphones would pick up audio, as well as how components such as USB and line-in ports would rest relative to the recording parts

The earlier iPod models only allowed for mono recording, later generations were capable of stereo recording, and that’s when things really got interesting. This decision from Apple is what lead us to think about products like TuneStudio.

4. When TuneTalk Stereo was first shown, both white and black versions were going to be available, but it looks like only the black one was released in the United States. When it comes to offering color choices and trying to match iPod models, what is the difference between cases, which Belkin ships in numerous colors for each iPod, and electronic add-ons?

Quinteros: Cases and electronic hardware are different animals. Of course consumers like to have the ability to choose what color their accessories are, but it becomes less of a dissuading factor when purchasing a hardware accessory. On the other hand, iPod cases can be a very personal statement, where a voice recorder is more about utility and less about lifestyle.


The white version of TuneTalk Stereo, originally shown in January 2006, never hit U.S. shelves

When it was time to launch TuneTalk Stereo, we recognized a growing preference by consumers towards black accessories and it was simply a decision to work with our retail partners to help them manage their inventory and merchandizing challenges by offering them only one choice. At the time, many of the designers actually preferred white to black.

5. Belkin’s most recent iPod audio products TuneStudio and Podcast Studio look and feel radically different from the portable recorders that preceded them—more colorful and complex. Is this just attributable to the work of different designers, or was there a larger motivation in shifting from simple, one-button glossy white or black add-ons to grays, rainbow hues, and lots of features?

Quinteros: TuneStudio and Podcast Studio do have a different aesthetic than their predecessors. These products address the more sophisticated needs of musicians and bloggers who want to do more than basic recording. They have a much more complex user interface since they are providing a higher level of control of recordings and playback. Another key point worth mentioning is that our earlier accessories were much smaller and lived on the iPod; here the accessory is much larger and holds the iPod.


Like Apple’s famously prototype-driven design process, Belkin’s designs begin with rough shape modeling and evolve details as prototypes progress from resin into mechanically correct plastic forms; Podcast Studio is shown here

The Belkin design team works closely together so most everyone has the ability to have some input into the designs of each product.

6. In addition to evolutions of the products themselves, it’s obvious that your iPod accessory packaging and manuals have evolved a lot over the past few years, becoming more stylish and easier to understand at the same time. This may seem like an obvious question, but have you noticed any real uptick in user satisfaction or interest in Belkin products as a result of these changes, or were they just motivated by a desire to have cooler-looking packaging?

Quinteros: Apple customers tend to value good design, and this is true both in terms of product and packaging. The intense competition in the accessory space requires every manufacturer to continuously improve their retail packaging. The package often becomes the first opportunity to introduce an end-user to the benefits of a product, the brand and messaging really needs to be on point.


Belkin’s blister pack-style packages with small text and details have evolved into cool, easier-to-open transparent boxes with large lifestyle photos

Because the packaging and products both evolve together, it’s hard to know how much customer satisfaction is due to product or packaging improvements. We evolve our packaging for a variety of reasons, including competitive pressures, to avoid getting “stale,” to improve environmental considerations, and, yes, for personal satisfaction. It feels good to walk into a store and watch customers pick up your package.

7. Looking back at your photo transfer accessories, we were struck by the fact that the Digital Camera Link actually had light indicator reading instructions printed on its back—a real deviation from the “keep it simple” design of the earlier Media Reader. Why did the Camera Link go more complex, and did you learn anything from that experience?


This early take on the Media Reader was simplified prior to the device’s release, with an easier sliding cover panel

Quinteros: The Camera Link was designed to address several of the criticisms of the earlier Media Reader: speed, battery life, and cost. To do so, it had to move away from the iPod’s built-in media reader support, and address the iPod as a USB hard drive. This also meant losing access to the iPod’s LCD user interface to start transfers and communicate status, so we tried to provide as much information as we could through the device itself. In retrospect, we might’ve chosen to incorporate an LCD display, despite the fact that it would have increased the retail price.

8. Apple surprised everyone by releasing the iPod Camera Connector, which did the same thing as the Digital Camera Link but in a much smaller and cheaper, fully iPod-powered enclosure, then Belkin stopped making iPod Camera accessories. What was the story here—was there just nothing left for Belkin to do in the category, or was Apple’s decision to create its own accessory preemptive?

Quinteros: Apple’s Camera Connector came to market alongside a new series of iPods, and leveraged some new hardware and software features that resolved most of the issues and limitations we had with earlier photo-import products. From our perspective, Apple had done a great job with the iPod Camera Connector, and we couldn’t bring a lot more value to consumers beyond this. At the same time, the prices of multi-gigabyte camera cards were dropping rapidly, challenging the demand for expanded photo storage. In the end, we chose to focus our resources on other products.

9. How has your work on iPod products influenced the design of your non-iPod products? We’ve noticed that Belkin has been putting a lot of style into recent computer and home theater products such as your N1 Vision router, hubs, docking stations, and Pure AV line—categories where ID hasn’t historically mattered.

Quinteros: The design work of our iPod accessories has had minimal influence on the rest of our Belkin products. The team generally likes to design thoughtful and simple to use products. It’s interesting that you mention that we put a lot of style into our products. We actually tend to focus more on the solution than on the products’ aesthetics.


Belkin’s visually stunning N1 Vision Router looks unlike any other 802.11n wireless router on the market, yet the company says its focus is on solutions rather than looks

We prefer to keep the design of all of our hardware products simple and intuitive—we aren’t trying to make any strong design statements. It’s important that we get the product right; that’s what really matters. If we were designing furniture, we might take a different approach. And, if consumers happen to feel that our products are attractive, we won’t get upset with them!

10. Since you’ve created everything from $20 cases to $400 four-channel audio mixers for the iPod family, what’s your favorite type of design project—one that’s cheap and will likely sell hundreds of thousands of units, one that’s more complex and has a more limited market, or something in-between? Why?

Quinteros: Every type of product has its own set of complexities and challenges but I believe we are open to most programs. It’s really less about the price point or project scale, and more about how we hope to connect with our customers.


An early testing mockup of the TuneTalk Stereo shows how Belkin approached a new issue created by Apple’s requirement that accessories connect to iPods’ bottoms; a rear stand was improved to keep the iPod standing tall during recording sessions

To some, a comfortable sweat-resistant armband is more exciting than a sophisticated mixing system. To others, the opposite is true. If it’s something that we think our customers will get excited about, or will make their lives easier or more fun, then we get excited and have fun developing it.

iLounge: Thank you for your time.

[Editor’s Note: The products and subjects featured in iDesign are selected solely on the basis of merit by iLounge’s editors, without any involvement from companies or their designers. Additional notes on the creation of iDesign are available here.]

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