Form and function – leaving the typewriter behind

English: Typewriter "Hermes" Deutsch...

I gave my wife a portable radio for Christmas. It has FM, DAB, Internet, WiFi, UPnP and network folder sharing. Essentially it does nothing that the computers in the house can’t do, but for some reason it’s opened the world of audio programmes in a way that our computers have not. We spent the holiday listening to WFMUresonance FMDrone Zone on SOMA FMRadio 4 Listen Again, and strangely enough whenever we tuned toWNYC and WGBH we seemed to always get the BBC World Service.

All of these things have been available to us on our computers via their individual websites, Freeview, iTunes, Shoutcast, etc. but for some reason, we haven’t taken much advantage of them up to now and this got me wondering why.

We can start with the things that aren’t the reason:

Audio quality – We’re using an iMac for all our media: music, television, movies and it’s connected to a very good set of speakers. In fact, the audio quality of this setup is far superior to the radio.

Access – the iMac is connected directly to our broadband connection and has software to play almost any media file it encounters

User interface – initial reaction is, “no.” All of the radio websites listed above are fairly well designed and straightforward to navigate. It’s easy to find the programmes you want.

After a month of use, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s related to a broader concept of “user interface,” one that includes the physical design of the radio coupled with the overall consistancy of the experience.

Over the years we’ve come to regard radio as a portable, ambient medium, we listen in the shower, while we’re cooking, in the car, in the workshop, while we move from room to room doing housework, and the devices support that – just grab the handle on the top and move it from place to place with you.

We move seemlessly from partial attention to full attention and this is one thing that separates the experience from the Walkman/iPod experience, which is just as portable but far more focussed. The other difference is that without headphones, this can be a shared experience.

Upon reflection, it seems that a portable radio’s form factor has developed to be not simply an ideal way to listen to the radio, but the ideal way to listen to audio in general.

The problem with using computers for listening to music or watching video is that the form factor of a PC, either desktop or laptop, is that of a typewriter – a keyboard and a vertically scrolling piece of paper, and almost all website and media player user interfaces have been built to answer the question, “what’s the best way to listen to the radio or watch television on a typewriter?” This is not good for anyone.

The consistency of navigation on an internet radio is perhaps its greatest feature. There are lots of great radio stations with wonderful websites, like the ones listed above, but they all look different and work differently. With the radio, my wife and I can quickly find what we’re looking for in the same way for every single station. The ease of that is not to be underestimated.

The good news is that the cost of creating fairly powerful computing devices is coming down, eliminating the need for the one size fits all approach of a PC. We can now leave the typewriter behind.