★ On Technology and Expectations

At its most basic level, what is technology supposed to do? The answer, of course, is to make our lives easier. Technology is supposed to simplify, not complicate; to solve problems, rather than to exacerbate them. Yet in the personal computing industry seems less concerned with simplification than it should be. This is largely due to two parallel phenomenons: the commoditization of the PC industry and the lowering of expectations concerning what a computer should be. Burdened by the need to sell more machines and increasingly locked into the traditional model of desktop-based thinking, technology companies work hard to add multitudinous features to products without considering how those features may adversely impact the product's original functionality. The result is feature bloat, resulting in technology that fails at its most basic mission. I found a quote earlier today that inspired this post:

The only way I can focus on my craft and my art is if I don’t constantly dilute it.

The key to saying no successfully is to understand that you are not saying no to everything, you are saying yes to those things you want.

[...]

The rewards are significant. The more you say no, the greater your freedom to focus on what you really want to do. That is a heady and addicting experience.

How many major technology companies today are prepared to say no to features, to easy selling points? In my experience, the only one is Apple. Some might say that Apple has the luxury of saying no, as they're a market leader among technology firms and sitting on almost $50 billion in cash. But the truth is that Apple's remarkable success of the last decade has been the result of saying no to feature bloat and maintaing focus on what it wants to accomplish as an organization.

The key to Apple's success is that its technology serves the function it is supposed to serve: it simplifies. It takes what other computing companies have bloated and strips it down to its essence, and then builds on top of it without compromising its integrity. That's not to say it always hits the mark, but its track record is significantly better than that of its competitors, and of significantly greater benefit to its customers and its shareholders.

Without delving too deeply into Apple's philosophy or ultimate product goals, I think that two things are immediately clear. One, Apple creates products with very clearly delineated uses, rather than simply to market new versions. Each of these products is valued very carefully so that at almost any price level from $49 to $2500, someone can buy an Apple product. By tiering its prices in this way, Apple ensures that its decisions will be based not on what price can be charged for an item, but rather on how an item will fit into its plans. The company, rather than the market or competitors, is able to make decisions about its products.

[caption id="attachment_2433" align="aligncenter" width="368" caption="Apple Products by Price"][/caption]

Two, Apple is the only company in Silicon Valley that is unafraid to abandon features if it thinks that they interfere with the primary user experience. You see, features have costs as well as benefits. The most noteworthy example of this unique trait is the abandonment of many features by this year's iPod Nano. Whereas the 2009 Nano was capable of video recording and playback, this year's model has shrunk dramatically and shed all but its most basic music-oriented features.

Rather than trying to one-up itself and its competitors by adding an HD or still camera, Apple took a step back and reevaluated the purpose of its product - to make it easier for people to listen to their music on the go. Does anyone expect a similar revamp from the Zune this year?

Now there are people who will say that Apple made a mistake by losing the camera. But the instinct to shed features in the name of focus is so rare in Silicon Valley and in society generally that it must be applauded. And anyone who wants to take pictures with their Apple device can pay $70 more for the 8 GB iPod Touch over the 8 GB iPod Nano.

Each of Apple's products has a very specific purpose, and does not carry extraneous features. If there is a feature that matters to you (click wheel, physical keyboard, more horsepower, etc.), you can pay more for it or you can leave the Apple ecosystem. The high build quality and focus on customer satisfaction ensures that most that go Mac never go back. It's Apple's focus on maintaining it's products' purposes that keep people buying them.

The purpose of technology is to simplify, and Apple's products do that better than most of its competitors. There are other companies that do certain things better, but none that so often hits the mark on what it tries to accomplish. They're not always perfect, but they are always focused on that end goal, and don't add features without carefully considering how they might impact their ability to achieve it. There are people who don't understand the value of that focus, because their expectations have been lowered by a heavily-commoditized PC industry that thinks it needs to add features to sell units, whether or not those features are needed. Whatever the merits of those feature-bloated devices, they indisputably fail to simplify, and that cannot be ignored.