Amazon Fire And The Importance Of Interface Design

Application-specific designs are just the beginning.

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The flames have died down a bit from the red-hot coverage of the launch of the Amazon Fire smart phone, but the impact of the announcement lingers for me. Love or hate Amazon (I love the company), you have to tip your hat to CEO Jeff Bezos. He’s redefined smart phone design with this offering and in the process forced our industry to think about how we support system designers like Amazon.

We’ve already seen a shift in server design in recent years, with large IBM, HP and Oracle server customers beginning to design their own to their own unique needs, be they high-throughput transactional systems or architectures that optimize for low power.

These are application-specific system designs. Now Amazon is out with what effectively is the first application-specific smart phone (true, Facebook had an early attempt, but struggled with acceptance).

We don’t know precisely what’s inside the Amazon Fire yet. Kyle Wiens of iFixit tells me his crew won’t get its hands on the device for several weeks. But here’s what Amazon’s divulged:

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Smart phone? Shopping Portal?
Note that last line in the box. The idea is not just to create a great smart phone (Bezos joked that it also has to make phone calls) but to serve as a portal into Amazon, whether it’s the Amazon Prime video and audio services or the great Amazon virtual store front. It’s a phone and a first-of-its-kind shopping device. That’s where the sensors and the 3D capabilities come into play.

High performance and low power, of course, are the name of the game in these designs. But there’s something gnawing at me; I can’t quite put my finger on it but it involves dots connected between application-specific smart phone design (in other words how systems design is being affected by this application domain) and changing Internet of Things design considerations.

Part of it is certainly low power. Recall our piece in May focusing on Google Project Ara, where Dave Rutledge, CTO at Lattice Semiconductors, noted that the world can’t handle 50 billion IoT devices in six years if they’re all drawing 1W.

There’s also an integration issue and a design enablement issue, as well, that spans both worlds.

Importance of interface design
But more importantly, I suspect there’s an interface issue that’s suggested by Bezos’ Fire phone. Unlocking IoT markets likely will be about evolving the human interface so these myriad devices work with and for us humans better. The smart phone touch screen and voice-trigger technologies like Siri are a nice start, but as consumers, we know there’s something better out there.

The bottom line is that the next frontier in IoT must take into account the human experience if electronics systems designers are to unlock vast markets.

That experience will be more comprehensive than ever: It will include voice, gesture, touch and facial/object recognition. You should be able to talk to your thermostat and say “temperature down 5 degrees” or wave your hand at your flat screen TV to change channels.

Devices and nodes will need to understand that you’re you (the sound of your voice or the look on your face); they’ll need to be secure, cost-effective and power-miserly.

This isn’t going to be easy (it never is, right?) The algorithms and processing requirements are dizzying. And the stunning consumer-design successes of recent years have created consumer expectation that only heap on the time-to-market pressures for tomorrow’s solutions on today’s design teams.

But the good news is that, as an industry, we’re envisioning the path forward, arraying ourselves in various ecosystems to boost our productivity and focus and we’re moving ahead.