iDesign on Griffin Technology’s Ingenuity: The Interview | iLounge Article

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iDesign on Griffin Technology’s Ingenuity: The Interview

Over the five editions of iDesign we have published, the concept—identify great design—has remained constant, while the focus has varied: some editions have looked at designs that were bold and beautiful, while others were simple and elegant, and still others were creative and brainy. As the subject of our fifth edition, Griffin Technology’s portable iPod and iPhone accessories are clearly the “brainy” ones of the bunch, combining original engineering with genre-defining industrial design and smart pricing. Keeping with tradition, we contacted the company after publication of iDesign 5 and arranged an interview to flesh out its novel design process.

We spoke this week with three members of Griffin’s design and engineering teams: Robert Donovan, Design Director; Cameron Boone, Electrical Engineer, and Paul Griffin, the company’s President. Having founded the company, Mr. Griffin was responsible for the concept behind the original iTrip, while Messrs. Donovan and Boone have worked on the casings, features, and components found in numerous subsequent products, including the accessories iTalk and iFM, as well as others discussed in the iDesign feature. During a series of 10 questions we posed, they walked us through the history and challenges of Griffin Technology’s most notable projects, and showed us prototype designs that either inspired actual releases, or for varying reasons never made it to market. We hope you enjoy the dialogue and associated images.

(1) Griffin is one of relatively few companies that generally designs the internal electronics and software for its own products, rather than just repackaging add-ons created by another vendor’s engineers. From your perspective, what are the advantages and disadvantages of this approach to product design?

Paul Griffin, President: Designing our products in their entirety allows us to create unique products with innovative features. Additionally, we have greater control over quality. Many products in our space are designed by factories that also build the products. Their primary design criteria is often “cost” at the expense of quality.

Griffin’s pre-production phase of development includes numerous design iterations and small tweaks comparable to Apple’s legendary prototyping process

Cameron Boone, Electrical Engineer: Since we have been designing iPod accessories for years, we have developed an intimate knowledge of how to approach and design certain types of products for the iPod/iPhone. Having such familiarity allows us to spend more time and energy focusing on developing those few “icing on the cake” features that really separate our products from our competitors’, and spend less time on the more rudimentary aspects of the design. Another advantage of keeping designs in-house has to do with certifications. For instance, when certifying an FM transmitter developed in-house, I can perform detailed tests at the office and have strong confidence that the design will pass all of the necessary certifications when it goes to the testing lab. Typically only one or two iterations may be needed. In contrast, certifying a product designed by another vendor often takes longer and can involve many more design iterations before all problems are solved.

Robert Donovan, Design Director: The most obvious advantage is the extreme interactivity between the design and engineering teams. The result is most often that the final product is remarkably true in detail to the original concept description and design renderings.

The biggest disadvantage is how long this process tends to take. Since we have the capability to do whatever we can imagine, we often burn cycles rethinking our solutions. If you are just repackaging an existing solution you have to accept the limitations of the supplied hardware. At Griffin we accept no limitations and that often results in missed deadlines. In today’s fast-paced market delays can be costly.

(2) Tell us how the original iTrip came to be.

PG: When the iPod originally shipped, the first thing I wanted to do with it was to use it in my car. As my car only had CD and radio inputs, the obvious choice was through the radio via FM. Making a small device that attached to the iPod and drew its power from the iPod was also something I wanted so it could be used with home stereo systems. These were novel ideas at the time.

Also, in order to make the original iTrip small enough to not intrude on the iPod’s sleek lines and to reduce costs, I came up with the idea of using audio tones to control the station that the iTrip transmitted on.

(3) There have been many sequels to iTrip since 2002—at least 10 portables and several for cars. Other than the original one, which were the toughest to design, and why?

RD: The goal of our iTrip designs has always been to compliment the iPod. The first dock connector equipped iTrip was probably the most difficult iTrip design for me. It resulted in a difficult departure from the iconic white cylindrical shape of the first 3 generations of iTrips. Intuitively I knew that we should keep the cylindrical shape but the new thinner iPods just didn’t look right with the size cylinder we had to use to package all of the required components. In the end I was happy with the resulting design, but to this day I feel the original top-mounted iTrips were superior.

This early concept version of a bottom-mounting iTrip with on-screen tuning was scrapped in favor of the separate LCD and switch-controlled version

CB: The toughest iTrip by far to design was the original iTrip nano.

PG: The iTrip nano used the iPod’s screen to display station selections. This made for a less costly and more compact design. The biggest challenge for me on that product was writing an application that allowed us to push images to the iPod’s screen to prototype and optimize the design. I spent a considerable amount of time on this and although several of our competitors later copied the concept, I do not think any of them did as good a job as we did on the original version with the screen layout and menu choices.

Pre-production renderings of iTrip nano turned out nearly identical to the final product, except that it needed less adhesive backing than first planned

CB: The iTrip nano sled only added slightly to the length of the nano, thus the front visual profile was not much changed, and the position of the 3-way rocker switch made it comfortable and easy to use. The challenge that this form factor presented is that it took quite a bit of research and many design iterations to design an antenna: the chrome backing of the original iPod nano is basically a sink for RF energy and having an antenna within a few millimeters would severely degrade performance. I would estimate that I spent about 6-8 weeks on researching and optimizing the iTrip nano’s antenna; this is always the most difficult part of designing an FM transmitter and needs to be considered in the early stages of design. 

iTrip, iTrip Auto, and iTrip Auto with SmartScan

RD: The original iTrip Auto went through numerous concept rounds as we attempted to improve upon the existing cabled FM transmitter concept. In the end we settled on a more standard configuration based on pressure to deliver a workable solution in a very short timeframe. The most challenging (and rewarding) part for me was the numerous trips to our Asian factories that were required to bring this product to market in record time.

(4) Tell us the story behind the original iTalk. What were your goals for the design, and were there any major obstacles to overcome?

RD: The original iTalk project began when I placed a cold call to Griffin and secured a meeting. I was working for a small product design firm in Birmingham, Alabama and uncovered Griffin in a phone directory search. At the conclusion of my sales presentation, Paul disappeared for a moment. When he returned he dropped a tiny speaker, microphone and a bare Apple 9-pin connector on the table. In 30 seconds he described the product that would become iTalk.

iTalk (left) and iTalk Pro (right)

PG: Our goal was to make a great voice recorder that was easy to operate. The innovations in that product that allowed this were a built in speaker and automatic gain control (AGC). While these might seem somewhat obvious for a voice recording product, both were novel at the time, and later adopted by our competitors.

RD: Many form factors were considered, but the clean and simple top-mounted concept that became the final product was figured out in my head during the three hour drive back to Birmingham. Often it seems for me that the first ideas are the ones I come back to in the end.

The biggest obstacle was that my original concept featured a simple speaker grille that was simply a series of concentric holes arranged in a circular pattern. Then Belkin released their first voice recording accessory which featured the same exact speaker grille design. I quickly went back to the drawing board and came up with the chrome grille that ended up adding just the right amount of bling to the design. Unfortunately, this redirection resulted in an unavoidable production delay; fortunately, the feature set and performance of the iTalk quickly overcame any advantages our more agile competitors may have enjoyed. Oh, and it also landed me the position of Design Director at Griffin.

The original concept for iTalk was iRecord, which became much cooler visually after a redesign; later, a bottom-connecting iTalk with speaker was designed and scrapped

CB: As one of two engineers primarily involved in the design of the original iTalk, my main goals were to obtain good recording quality, solid speaker playback, low cost, and to avoid draining the iPod battery more than necessary. Another obstacle that had to be overcome involved the playback through the speaker element: high volumes would result in a large amount of ripple on the power supply that could potentially reset the microcontroller.

(5) iTalk Pro made some major changes to the original iTalk’s formula, both cosmetically and functionally. Why did you make those changes, and would you do it differently given the opportunity?

PG: Most of the changes to the iTalk came about from Apple’s transition from the original 9-pin connector to the current 30-pin connector.

Frustrated with Apple’s abrupt decision to kill the iPod’s 9-pin top connector, Griffin created an adapter to let old accessories work on new iPods; retailers didn’t want to carry it

RD: Hindsight is always 20/20. As such, I’m pretty sure we would have done things differently with the iTalk Pro. At the time our initial thought was to simply reproduce the original iTalk in a bottom connecting form. The then-new 5G iPods featured a flat face that we wanted to mimic in our design which drove the revised styling. I drew up a version with a matching chrome speaker grille and we thought we were done.

Griffin’s successes with iTalk and iTrip led to concepts of a combination mic, FM transmitter, and ability to let you sing along to the iPod: iKaraoke

The main issue that cropped up was that the new product was going to require an authentication chip from Apple to function. Apple was still developing the specification for how this interface would work while we were trying to develop a new iTalk. During this on again, off again process, it became apparent that getting usable sound out of the speaker would be problematic. To do so was going to require a separate amplifier chip, volume control and a micro controller to make it all work. We came to the conclusion that the most important aspect of the new iTalk should be its ability to take advantage of the new CD quality stereo recording feature of the new iPods. Maybe we’ll get it right next time.

(6) Your portable iPod FM radio tuner iFM was famously announced, cancelled, then redesigned and released. Can you tell us about the challenges this product faced throughout its development cycle, how it changed before release, and why there hasn’t been a sequel for today’s iPods?

PG: Most of the challenges for the iFM were in engineering, particularly getting as much functionality as the original product had in that small of a package. We also spent considerable time in tuning the FM reception and I believe we ended up with as good a receiver as any small form factor product. The idea of using the iPod’s voice recording capability for recording FM broadcasts was a novel feature that we also spent a lot of time working on. We have not made a sequel as Apple now has a product with similar functionality and has a competitive advantage in terms of access to the iPod’s OS and licensing.

As designed for the third- and fourth-generation iPods and iPod mini, iFM was to have a rounded shape; the concept later became iFM for the Sony PSP

CB: Many of the design challenges with iFM were due to changes in hardware and software support by Apple. The original version of iFM was finished in late 2003, and was very close to releasing, but was killed because right when we were ready to ship Apple stopped including/selling the wired remote that the original iFM design was based around. 

I began working on the next version of the iFM in late 2004 and early 2005. One challenge that this product faced immediately is that it did not fit within an officially defined accessory category of Apple’s. It was not an FM transmitter or a Voice Recorder, and therefore it had a very limited amount of power that it could draw from the iPod’s battery for its operation. iFM was also the first internally-designed Griffin product to include an LCD display, and there were several months of research involved in sourcing a display: it ended up being used in the iFM and several iTrip models, including ones shipping today. 

iFM for the Sony PSP

Within a few months of iFM’s release, Apple released iPods that no longer supported the 9-pin audio and data connector. The iFM design now had to be modified to connect to the iPod’s 30-pin connector, which also meant that iFM now had to perform volume control of the iPod’s line-level audio. The original shipping iFM also had the ability to record received FM radio broadcasts to the iPod; this functionality disappeared as well and was replaced with an EQ toggle.
 

iFM 9-Pin (Silver) and 30-Pin (Black) differed a little in looks, and a lot under their hoods

There are a number of reasons for there not being a sequel for today’s iPods, but I believe the two main reasons are the less than stellar sales of the iFM, and the sales price required to generate profit based on what it would cost today to build an iFM.
 
(7) Few companies would have designed or released iBeam. Tell us how that product came to be, and what you’ve learned from the experience.

PG: One of our project managers came up with the idea and it took me a while but I finally agreed to go with it.

iBeam, the iPod laser pointer, without its packed-in mini flashlight partner

The product was remarkably successful for the holiday season. I’m not sure if we learned any lessons from it; if we have other crazy ideas like this in the future, we would probably still bring them to market.

(8) Were there any equally crazy or crazier accessories that never made it out of the Griffin labs?

PG: We demoed an Infrared remote for the iPod just a few months after it was released. It required a user to select and play a sound snippet from the iPod to send a command to a device and as such was completely impractical. We also built a prototype of a passive amplifier for the iPhone which was pretty crazy looking. Another product that never made it out of the lab was a device that connected to the 30 pin connector on iPods and controlled functions such as play, pause, next, and previous through user’s motions. While we were quite taken with the idea, the actual implementation was pretty silly as finding unique motions meant the user would have to wave the iPod around in some crazy ways. A couple of other products that never made it included a pen with an accelerometer that would allow one to write or navigate in the air or any surface and an iTrip that would transmit videos via broadcast TV.

Some of Griffin’s concepts are jokes, or humorously designed as reactions to Apple’s clean, simple designs.

RD: We take ideas and throw them around, tear them up, look at them from every angle and then decide which ones we think have the most merit. This usually involves a couple hundred square feet of whiteboard drawings, lots of caffeine, some cursing, and a bag or two of peanut M&Ms. I would say that it would be presumptuous of me to classify any idea as crazy or not. I learned a long time ago that one man’s crazy is another man’s salvation. All those ideas that haven’t made it out of the “Griffin Labs,” it could be that their day just hasn’t come yet.

Evolve, the wireless speaker system, started life as a rough sketch that defined what would become an amazing product; a white version, below, was rendered out but not manufactured based on concerns that it wouldn’t look right in most homes

CB: There’s one project I began working on when I first started at Griffin four and a half years ago, and have worked off and on ever since. It is an extremely innovative product idea—another one of Paul’s—so I cannot discuss it at present. It just may one day make it out of the laboratory.

(9) Relatively speaking, how individually important do you think (a) industrial design, (b) engineering, and (c) pricing have been to the success of your key products?

PG: I think that innovation has been the most important factor in our products’ successes. In my opinion, there is nothing as important as being first to market or owning intellectual property associated with a product. After that, engineering, ID, and pricing all have fairly equal weight. You really have to get all of those right to have a successful product.

AirClick, the company’s RF remote control, was originally designed with a flip-up antenna to boost reception; the antenna was pulled when testing showed it offered no benefit

RD: To me, Griffin is mostly about value. Value is defined as the worth of something compared to the price asked for it. Our products are generally attractively styled, perform as promised and are priced competitively. While some of our products may bias towards one area or another, no one area can ultimately overshadow the others. I feel that the synergy of all three of these components working in harmony under one roof is what has made us so successful.

CB: I believe they have all been important. As an engineer I am going to lean towards engineering as being most important, with industrial design in a close second. I believe first time customers have initially purchased our products either because they liked the look and packaging, or because they were referred by someone who recommended the product based on performance. Repeat customers probably purchase more based upon performance than looks, hence engineering over industrial design. I believe in the long run, engineering accounts for more sales.

(10) Is there any product you wish you could create for the iPod or iPhone, but won’t because of its impracticability, impossibility, or unattractive pricing? What could change to make it possible?

PG: There have been quite a few that could not be made for one reason or another. One that I always wanted to do was our Disko case with flashing LEDs, only operating from the iPod’s power supply and with lights that worked in sync with the music being played. Unfortunately, licensing issues make this and some other product ideas economically unfeasible. We also developed a GPS module that works with the iPhone via a Wi-Fi connection. However the cost for this product, along with the fact that iPhones now have artificial GPS, makes this impractical.

iRave, a first-generation iPod shuffle light and music accessory, was shown in rendered form but never released; the company wishes it and similar products could have happened

CB: I’d like to do a broadcast HDTV receiver utilizing the iPod touch or iPhone as the display. There are a number of things that make this impractical both technically and financially, and as the number of over the air HD channels is quite limited I don’t believe it would be a viable product, just a cool one. 

iLounge: Thank you for your time.

[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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