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September 7, 2005

Pop Culture Embraces Engineering Alumnus’ “Hip” New Device

  — The hiptopTM communication device, popularly known as the T-Mobile Sidekick, was developed by Danger Inc., founded by Joe Britt

The hiptopTM communication device, popularly known as the T-Mobile Sidekick, is the latest must-have accessory in Hollywood and across the nation. It was developed by Danger Inc., a company founded by engineering alumnus Joe Britt
(BSCPE ’91).
(Photo: courtesy of Danger Inc.)

What’s it like to create pop culture’s hottest new accessory?

Just ask NC State computer engineering alumnus Joe Britt. He is chief technology officer and founder of Danger Inc., the Silicon Valley company that designed and developed the hiptopTM communication device, popularly known as the T-Mobile Sidekick. This latest must-have accessory in Hollywood and across the nation adorns the hips of pop culture icons like Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie and Jennifer Aniston. Danger’s hiptopTM offers users the ability to instant message (IM), email, surf the Internet and talk on the phone wirelessly on a device that isn’t much larger than a standard cell phone.

And the answer to the question?

“It’s great,” says Britt with a laugh. “We could never have purchased that level of advertising, but what it really speaks to is the design of the device. If it weren’t filling a need with a high coolness factor, then these people would not have one.”

The “coolness factor” and the combination of applications are what put the hiptopTM on top of the communications device industry and on the hips of the rich and famous. It has won numerous industry awards and is on several “best of” lists.

“When we were designing the hiptopTM, we incorporated what I call ‘surprises in surprises’ in the design,” says Britt. “You want to continually delight the user so the device isn’t just useful — it is fun to use.”

Britt and his colleagues did not start Danger with the hiptopTM in mind. They learned from trial and error and listened to their contacts in the investment community. With that input and their backgrounds building consumer-focused digital products, the original idea for an inexpensive Internet marketing device evolved into the hottest new communication tool on the market. Along the evolutionary path, the Danger team encountered many challenges related to creating a multifunctional wireless communications device. The company holds several patents for the technologies developed to address those challenges.

Joe Britt is CTO and founder of Danger Inc., the Silicon Valley company that designed and developed the hiptopTM communication device, popularly known as the T-Mobile Sidekick. (Photo: Kristi Ribble for Danger Inc.)

“Developing intellectual property (IP) is necessary for the success of a technology-based company,” says Britt. “The IP aspect and how to protect what you build is very important.”

Danger’s non-linear path to the hiptopTM reflects Britt’s own path to Danger. At age 19 he began his Silicon Valley career, working summer internships at Apple Computer Inc. After graduation from NC State in 1991, he joined the Apple team, working in the Reduced Instruction Set Computer (RISC) Products Group. He also was a core member of the Read Only Memory (ROM) development team for the first-generation PowerPC-based Macintosh.

He left Apple in 1993 to join the 3DO Company, where he contributed to the design of a new video game console. After 3DO, he joined a very small startup called Catapult Entertainment and was part of the team that created the Xband Video Game Network, which enabled multi-player gaming over the Internet. His experience and contacts there led him to another startup, Artemis Research — that being the “stealth name” for the company that would become WebTV. He was responsible for the architecture and creation of the system software used in the WebTV set-top boxes. He holds five patents based on his work with the hardware design at WebTV.

In late 1999, he and two friends, Andy Rubin and Matt Hershenson, came up with the idea to start Danger. They raised enough money to cover the initial start-up costs from friends and family. The idea and the investment paid off. Venture capitalists recognized the potential of the company’s product and provided the capital needed to bring Danger and the hiptopTM to the market.

Britt now shares what he has learned about starting a technology company with students in the Engineering Entrepreneurs' Program at NC State. Each year, Dr. Tom Miller, vice provost for distance education and learning technology applications and founder of the Engineering Entrepreneurs' Program, brings his student entrepreneurs to meet alumnus Britt and tour Danger. Britt says he enjoys the connection with NC State and the interaction with the students. He tells the students about his work and how his engineering education helped him.

“The most important lesson I learned in engineering at NC State was how to think about a problem,” says Britt. “Learning the philosophies for approaching problems was important to the process of creating the hiptopTM.”

— weston —

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