Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting



To Love a Gadget…

Isn’t it great to see how many people have fallen in love with their smart phones?  They take them to bed each night and say goodnight to their phone as they are drifting off to sleep.  They greet their phone first thing in the morning as they are waking up.  And during the day they take it along wherever they go.   During their travels as soon as the plane lands they rush to get it out and gently caress the touch screen to elicit the latest messages.  They walk down the street so intently engrossed in the colorful images that they forget where they are and sometimes wander into oncoming traffic.  With such an all-encompassing and intimate bond can there be a love any stronger than this?    

And now, we are beginning to experience this same intimacy and love for our even more caress-able and even more lovable IPADs.  How did all this come to be?  We certainly did not develop such bonds of intimacy with our personal computers or laptops.  One would think that with a name like “personal computer” at least a good friendship could blossom.  But apparently not.  We’ve never migrated beyond using them as utilitarian tools to do our typing, calculating, and communicating.  The PC’s bland beige box just sits there under my desk and hums its monotonous hum from the cooling fan. 

What made the difference?  Well, recently perhaps the greatest product genius of the computer age explained it all.  Steve Jobs said the following during the introduction of the IPAD2:  “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough – it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing and nowhere is that more true than in these post-PC devices.  A lot of folks in the tablet market are rushing in and they’re looking at this as the next PC.  The hardware and software are done by different companies and they’re talking about speeds and feeds just like they did with PCs.  Our experience and every bone in our body says that is not the right approach to this.  These are post-PC devices that need to be even easier to use than a PC… where the software and the hardware and the applications need to intertwine in a more seamless way than they do on a PC.”

Is this an entirely new idea that no one has ever explored before?  Not to me.  Early in my career I had a work experience that demonstrated the success of just such an approach to the design of products where raw performance and superior technical specifications would by most of us be considered the primary and perhaps only determining criteria.  The company that taught me that design criteria beyond pure technical specifications are of major importance in the commercial success of state-of-the-art products was Tektronix. 

Throughout it’s history, beginning in the late 1940s, Tektronix has been known as the pre-eminent company for oscilloscopes.  I started working at Tektronix on a part-time basis while attending Reed College in the early 60s.  By then, the company had already achieved considerable success with its strongest major competitor being Hewlett-Packard.  Nevertheless, there were a few other less prominent test equipment companies who tried to surpass the Tektronix products based on raw performance.  Oscilloscope frequency response has always been an important parameter and in 1960 getting to 100 MHz was considered an almost impossible goal.  Tektronix products were pushing the limits and could not do better than about 80-85 MHz.  Then one day the bad news was announced that a new competitor – Fairchild – had achieved the magic 100 MHz bandwidth with a product that looked quite similar to the Tektronix laboratory oscilloscopes.  There was great concern among Tektronix employees that this would have a major negative impact on sales.  But surprisingly it didn’t.

Why not?  As it turned out there was much more to the Tektronix products than raw performance.  They had a distinct look and feel that competing products could not duplicate.  The layout of the controls, the precise operation of the switches, the excellent waveform images produced by the Tektronix-designed and Tektronix-manufactured CRTs, and the overall look and feel of superb mechanical and electronic precision turned out to be more important than an extra 15 or 20 % of bandwidth.  Engineers and scientists were requesting their employers to purchase Tektronix oscilloscopes because they were in fact in love with them.  The Tek ‘scopes were a pleasure to use and made every laboratory look state-of-the-art.   Howard Vollum, the key founder of Tektronix, recognized this early on and the culture he instilled lived for many years after his passing.  As a part-time employee and then later as a full-time technology and business manager at Tektronix, I always appreciated this culture of product excellence that transcended the drive for pure performance specifications.

Thus, it is easy for me to appreciate what Steve Jobs is saying.  This attention to the human side of technology can be even more important in consumer products, especially since we all have our smart phones and IPADs with us for many more hours each day than our oscilloscopes.  However, the next time you are in a laboratory and see a Tektronix scope – go ahead and give it a good caress.  Perhaps turn a few knobs and punch a few buttons – it will feel almost as good as caressing the screen on your new IPAD. 

Should you wish to comment on this topic or others – using your smart phone or IPAD of course -- you can reach me directly from this site, by e-mail at, or by telephone at 425-898-9117.