David Levy – Fast 50 2003


David Levy, an influential designer who shaped the ergonomics of the Apple PowerBook, understood sooner than most that the design of phones, laptops, and PDAs had to change radically. The problem: As these devices become smaller and smarter, they become almost impossible to use. It took eight years and 16 patents for Levy to develop the Fastap: a keypad that is as intuitive as a desktop interface, yet small enough to fit into one-third of the area of a credit card. Who says mobile technology has to be all thumbs?


David Levy
Founder, chairman, and CTO, Digit Wireless LLC
Cambridge, Massachusetts


Tell us what you do (or what your team or organization does) and the specific challenge you faced.
It’s hard to understand how the button could possibly become outdated. But it has. Here’s why: Electronic devices have two basic trends. They get smaller. They get more complex. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that one day the complexity of the interface will outgrow the devices. As proof, there is a growing list of new devices with painfully small buttons, or that require the user to press keys repeatedly to access a single function. Examples: Internet-enabled mobile phones (they have email, but try using it!) PDAs, GPS locators, e-books, web TV remotes… basically every next-generation electronic device. The fundamental problem is that advanced products need a computer interface, but a computer interface doesn’t fit inside a small device without a LOT of compromise. Conclusion: we are ready for a disruptive technology–a new type of button… a new type of keypad.

What was your moment of truth?
It was about a year after I left Apple Computer. I had been Apple’s ergonomic designer for the Powerbooks, and knew the field well. I “knew” (predicted) that the button paradigm had a limited life and set out to find a solution. I had carefully defined the characteristics of the solution: It needed to work EXACTLY like a regular button, NO training, NO explanation. It needed to be brain-dead intuitive, but it also needed to provide a LOT more functionality than existing keypads of the same size. The defining moment was finding the answer: Make all the keys full-sized, but make them overlap. Eight years and sixteen patents later, it is VERY cool. A fundamental new technology that redefines what products can be.

What were the results?
While the technology has many applications, our first focus is the mobile phone. In economic terms, the application is huge. Text messaging alone is worth $18 billion annually, yet still largely a youth phenomenon. However, the success of Blackberry shows that (with a good screen and keyboard) adults love mobile messaging too, suggesting a total market over $30 billion. We have two licenses signed, with phones scheduled for release in mid 2003. Market studies indicate people strongly prefer Fastap technology over the 12 button interface, as strongly they once preferred it to the rotary dial. In societal terms, a computer interface on the telephone opens a new world.

What’s your parting tip?
The peach sauce from Trader Joe’s is amazing.