The Technological Dumb Down Continues...

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As technology proliferates, the entire industry is increasingly struggling to balance ease-of-use and usability on the one hand with power and functionality on the other.

A quick glance at the criticism leveled at any modern computing platform bares the truth of this assessment. While supporters of Windows Vista point to its "eye candy" innovations, detractors point to the fact that it is only a partially functional, less stable version of XP rife with software and hardware incompatibilities. Critics of recent Linux distributions--long the exclusive realm of ubergeeks--allege that attempts to lure users away from other operating systems have led to its watering down to absurd levels.

Perhaps the most succinct statement of the problem came from the creator of Linux himself, who in 2005 said of Gnome, a particular variety of Linux desktop environment, the following:

This 'users are idiots, and are confused by functionality' mentality of Gnome is a disease. If you think your users are idiots, only idiots will use it. I don't use Gnome, because in striving to be simple, it has long since reached the point where it simply doesn't do what I need it to do.

The balancing act between usability and power is an unavoidable dilemma in this area, but I would argue that the pendulum has swung too far towards usability at the cost of power and continued advancement. I have demonstrated this phenomenon previously with respect to Windows Mobile hardware. In the current post, I argue that this trend also manifests itself in the way that phone companies and mobile software vendors market themselves to consumers, with similar results: technological innovation is stifled and the consumer remains uneducated.

A Typical Example: Verizon Wireless

Here in the States, if you're unlucky enough to have to sit through a commercial for a cell phone you're likely to see something like this. For those of you who don't want to subject yourself to this torture, I'll give you a brief synopsis. A worker looks at an oddly-dressed coworker and then asks a third one "what's up with Jim?" The other responds dryly that Jim "switched to Verizon Wireless so that he could download AC/DC." We then see Jim dancing around and singing along to AC/DC while using a photocopier. The original speaker then finishes with "that's awesome." Another commercial, if I remember it correctly, features a loner on a motorcycle talking to a woman about how he's a loner and how his phone will give him all he needs, such as the ability to watch music videos.

Now, if you ask me, these commercials are transparently stupid on multiple levels. They both attempt to convince you, the consumer, that their meager functionality is the "ultimate." Ask yourself honestly, can you actually picture a grown man's decision to buy a particular phone hinging on whether or not he can watch music videos on it? I can't even picture a grown man watching music videos on his phone. The same is true, though to a lesser extent, with the power to download music to your phone.

Now, if the functionality that these commercials attempted to extol was truly great and cutting edge, then this would be less problematic. For example, if I could receive all of my cable television channels on my phone 24/7, this would be the sort of thing to make central in an advertisement.

The problem with these commercials is that they are taking old technological accomplishments and trying to act as though they are state of the art. Okay, so you can download music files to your Verizon Wireless phone, but how many songs can you choose from? How much does it cost you to download them? What happens when you get a new phone? Can you copy them to other devices, like your computer? Can you convert them to other formats?

Anyone who has ever used a Windows Mobile phone knows that for half a decade Windows Mobile has allowed unlimited storage of music files (via storage cards), from any digital source (burned CD, downloaded, etc.), with no cost to put them on the device. Furthermore, files on a Windows Mobile device can be freely transferred back and forth between phones and computers and can be converted into any digital format. Similarly, Windows Mobile users have long been able to put entire movies on their phones to watch whenever they want, which makes the music video capability of Verizon phones look laughable. In other words, the features touted by Verizon in these commercials are good to have but are not the sort of state of the art technologies that they would have you believe.

Thus, to the extent that advertisements like these influence consumers, their effect can only be to make inferior technology desirable. Viewed through the lens of the usability vs. power conflict, this approach reflects a deliberate decision by Verizon to push easy-to-use, basic functionality instead of less-easy-to-use more powerful functioning (like that seen on Windows Mobile phones).

The iPhone Phenomenon

One of the chief consequences of Verizon and other phone companies' emphasis on phones with basic functions was the creation of a vacuum in the collective consciousness of the average American consumer that Apple has rushed in to fill. Exhibit A: one of the earliest iPhone commercials, available here, in which the speaker demonstrates the iPhone's browsing capabilities while saying the following:

This is not a...watered down version of the Internet...or the mobile version of the Internet...or the kinda sorta looks like the Internet. It's just the Internet.

At the risk of stating the obvious again, I've been able to view the same Internet this disembodied voice is describing from my Windows Mobile phone for years. Yet the effectiveness of this commercial hinges on the assumption that most people don't know that there are plenty of phones available from every major wireless carrier that will let you access the "real" Internet. Sadly, though, this assumption is more than reasonable because the only commercials we've seen from companies like Verizon tout phones that can play music (ooh!) and let you watch music videos (ahh!).

What This Means

The result is that in perhaps 95% of that portion of the American public that even cares about phone technology, the pinnacle of phone achievement is the iPhone. The problem with this, from an ease-of-use vs. power standpoint, is that the chief virtue of the iPhone is its user friendliness (its ease of use), not its power and functionality. Thus, in the minds of a majority of American consumers the most coveted phone is one that is easy to use, not one that is powerful and highly functional. Consequently, we are already beginning to see new devices attempting to ape features of the iPhone, which almost certainly means that many innovations in new Windows Mobile devices will focus on ease-of-use rather than increased power. This is fine if you're a casual user or a pimpled teenager but it is really discouraging to those of us who look forward to increasingly powerful devices and who enjoy the computer-like aspects of our devices.

Just some thoughts...

[Edit: in a bit of a follow up, on 11/15/2007 I noticed this post on the Windows Mobile Team Blog, which details a new UI called "Shadow." The post ends with the following statement:

As you can see, Microsoft is spending more of a focus on creating a good user experience, and working with the operator to deliver for their customers. Be on the lookout for more personalized experiences!

Considering the fact that it is still not possible to sync most Pocket Outlook data with a Vista PC unless you have Outlook, this is another indication that the powers that be are focusing on ease-of-use at the cost of power and functionality.

Thanks for the response Dale. I totally agree with you. What blows my mind is that I have NEVER seen a commercial for the Windows Mobile platform and am almost positive that I have never seen a commercial for a Windows Mobile based device (although I may have). Why is this?

As I tried to argue in the post, the lack of advertising about these devices is largely responsible for the ignorance that allowed Apple to craft their commercials as they have.

The only reason I can think of for the lack of Windows Mobile-related commercials is that since phone companies--not Microsoft--sell the phones, Microsoft doesn't feel a need to advertise the devices, and since phone companies' main cash cow is probably their "regular" phones, they don't see a need to advertise them either. I really hope that they (the phone companies and Microsoft) wake up and realize that they need to promote these devices because Windows Mobile is IMHO a far superior OS to the alternatives, but in a highly competitive mobile OS market, they may lose the battle for market share if they don't do more.

I sure do hope you're right Monte. I don't mind if most people just want to use their devices for Internet, music, and videos, so long as innovation and advancement continues for those of us who want more. I'm just worried that with the focus on simplicity will thwart, or at least slow, this forward movement. Thanks for your comments.

Nate: I in no way meant to disrespect AC/DC, just the idea that we should buy a phone because we can listen to music on it (as if this were the "ultimate").

I think your analysis regarding big business, etc. is correct but wish it didn't have this kind of adverse effect on the quality of devices.

You raise an interesting point about how most blogs ooh and ahh about every new gadget, etc. I sometimes feel like a perennial naysayer for writing posts like this one but when viewed against a backdrop of oohing and ahhing about silly new devices, I don't feel so bad.

And I laughed out loud when I read about your stone age life: "huddle, mumble, scratch, scratch"!

JK: I think I read somewhere that slingbox is in the works for the iPhone but I can't really be sure as I only read it in passing.

I like Vista too, generally but find myself using Ubuntu more for daily use.

Thank you both for your thoughtful comments =)

Wow! You could use that as a writing sample for something I'm sure!

That is the Microsoft scanario...how about we look at it with Apple being the ones who invent the brain interface:

The interface is created, and is hailed as an intuitive wonder. However, Apple made sure to only allow you to access about 5% of your brain. After having the brain interface installed you forget 95% of your memories and thoughts. Due to the nature of the implant, you cannot add any new data, such as new thoughts, memories or dreams.

Then an enterprising genius comes up with a way to overcome the limitations, and everyone feels a glimmer of hope...until Apple transmits a software "upgrade" (that you have beamed into your brain, like it or not) which totally shuts down all the brains of those who dared to dream or acquire new thoughts.

Despite the stir this causes, Apple runs a series of commercials claiming that human thoughts, dreams and memories never existed before their implant, The public doesn't really mind though...they may not have a fully functional brain, but they can download lots of music videos, and that makes it all better!

Holy cow!!! I think this DID happen already!

Hah! You guys are hilarious!

I thought you might like that!

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