The QWERTY Monoblock Lesson

I was a designer on Windows Phone about a decade ago, and one of my R&D explorations was called QWERTY Monoblock. It was a Windows Phone that also had a standard Blackberry-style hardware keyboard. At this point, the iPhone had already passed its fifth birthday, so adding a keyboard was already seen as a retro move. As my team worked on the concepts, it became clear that we were working with flawed premise, even for people who like hardware keyboards.

My manager and good friend tried motivating me with my love of Steve Jobs by saying “What would Steve Jobs do with this creative brief?” and my dam broke. I remember angrily spitting out “He’d call this out for the bullshit that it is. He’d cancel it. There’s nothing redeemable about this concept. It’s a dead end. It’s dumb.” It wasn’t a very professional thing to say, and I immediately felt bad. He gave me a look. But let’s not overlook that I was also right. It was in fact a dumb premise, and the higher-ups knew it. The R&D on the product was canceled soon afterwards and these days it’s hard to find a hardware keyboard on a smartphone.

Imagine being a designer of a new augmented reality headset (I prefer the word “helmet”) at any company today, now that Apple has tipped their hand. Meta is the biggest, but there are also plenty of people at Microsoft, Google, Valve, etc who are building in this space. Let’s say your manager comes into your office and explains the mission statement for your team’s next product: “We’re going to take inspiration from Apple Vision Pro, but we’re going to make it much, much cheaper.” Solid premise, one that has a chance of working. If it were me, I’d only have one question, and that one question would only have one right answer:

“Will we show eyes on the outside of the device the way Apple does?”

The answer will be no, which is not the right answer. You’ll be told it’s too hard, too expensive, makes the device too heavy, take too much battery, and besides, developing it will take too long, and your team needs to get something into the market within a year, or even six months. If you point out that you can’t compete against Apple Vision Pro without imitating their breakthrough “ski goggles” feature, you’ll be told you’re drinking the Apple Kool-aid. So you’ll do your best to make the best Apple Vision Pro competitor without their key differentiator. It will eventually launch, late (naturally), and it will fail.

Headsets that don’t show your eyes are going to disappear from the market as decisively as phones with hardware keyboards. Count on it.