I’ve become that guy. I never used to be that guy. You know, the guy who’s content with the technology he has because it’s working fine for him. The guy who’s perfectly capable of scaling any technical mountain but prefers to stick with what he knows. I think I’ve become somewhat afraid of change on the personal tech front. Or maybe ‘afraid’ isn’t quite right—skeptical and distrusting is more like it.
There are several reasons for this. For one, I think we have reached a time in the short history of personal technology where upgrading isn’t really beneficial to the average user—or even sophisticated ones.
While upgrading from a BlackBerry to an iPhone 3G was a really big deal in terms of functionality, device/software quality and overall satisfaction, going from an iPhone 4 to an iPhone 5 promises no such fundamental revelations. Yes, the iPhone 5 feels wonderful in the hand; but it’s not as if the iPhone 4 has suddenly become heavy, clunky or grown sharp corners. And while the new, larger screen certainly seems attractive, I have to admit that overall, I’m quite comfortable with four rows of icons instead of five. The core benefits of having a sophisticated smartphone—the ability to sync and play back music at a high quality; browse the web using a decent browser; take photos; use apps; etc.—haven’t really changed much in several years. That Siri “changed everything again” was never really true, but we let it go, caught up in the moment of Apple releasing something shiny and new.
Another thing that really slows me down when I think about upgrading to a new smartphone is that there often seem to be distinct drawbacks to doing so. The Apple Maps debacle is one such drawback (still not fixed), and Apple’s new iPhone connector is another. “Upgrading” to iOS 6 on my (perfectly functional, even delightful, thank you very much) iPhone 4 would give me a less accurate integrated map app (yes, I understand I could download a third-party app; yes, I really like Google Maps). From what I can tell, approximately all other features remain the same. My current phone is neither slow nor dying. And I have various existing iPhone/iPod 30-pin docks and cables that I don’t particularly feel like upgrading just to accommodate another of Apple’s proprietary connectors. Making the transition to an iPhone 5 right now would be expensive and give me less of what I want.
There are several other technologies besides smartphones that exhibit the same pattern.
The first is (personal computer) operating systems. I think we have reached the top of the maturity curve in terms of operating system functionality, stability and usability for the PC/notebook form factor (monitor + keyboard + mouse/track pad). This is certainly true for both major platform contestants. Windows hit it with Windows 7 (although the incredible persistence of Windows XP suggests most users think it happened in 2001). Mac OS X reached maturity around the 10.6 Snow Leopard mark. Beyond their point of maturity, both OSes exhibit departures from their stable user experience in non-organic and sometimes puzzling ways. For example, OS X introduces counter-intuitive, turned-around mouse scrolling in 10.7 Lion and tries to add yet another ‘simplified’ navigation concept, Launchpad (which lines up application icons in a grid format similar to iOS devices).
Windows 8 embraces this ‘mobilification’ trend on the Windows desktop: the metro UI, first developed for Microsoft’s ill-fated Zune music players and later a (moderate critical) success in Windows Phone, is now the basic desktop/navigation environment for Windows desktops and notebooks. Of course, the fact remains that the vast majority of Windows PCs do not, and will not, have a touchscreen—and while metro may be a useful way to show small bits of rapidly updating text-based information on small screen devices without forcing the user to fiddle with the device to see them, we weren’t exactly missing notification capabilities on Windows desktop computers before (or screen real estate, for that matter).
Apart from these gratuitous changes, there is no reason to believe that these operating systems aren’t stable, capable, good products. But they’re also in no way substantially better, faster, or more reliable than their immediate predecessors, or the versions before those. Windows 8 or Mac OS X 10.7 Lion don’t actually make you more productive, cooler—or allow you to do more in a way that counts for productivity or personal satisfaction. The operating system seems to have become rather like fashion: a few times a year, you buy new clothes, not really because the old ones are wearing out but because that’s what people do. Apple in particular has become breathtakingly, gloriously good at communicating this message of desirability and availability in its advertising (and at rapidly releasing one pointless incremental upgrade after another). Microsoft, with its big push to position Windows 8 and its new Surface tablet devices as viable competitors to Apple devices, is following suit with an almost identical playbook. Computing has become less about productivity or personal satisfaction benefits and more about following fashion. When productivity and satisfaction are mentioned in device or software advertising, they have become simulacra in the Baudrillardian sense: perversions of reality, stand-ins for what’s really going on.
The final category of upgrades that don’t serve any practical purpose is personal computer software applications. In many categories, we hit the moment of maturity several years ago. Truly new, game-changing “killer apps” for PCs won’t be released anymore (I know you’ll probably say that something like TweetDeck is a killer app, but it’s really just a client for an online service, which is a whole different category). Office suites, browsers, email programs, media players, instant messaging clients—all of these are mature and reached a functional and usability plateau years ago. Truthfully, upgrading to a new version of Microsoft Office won’t increase your productivity one iota. The new version may look nicer and make a handful of operations easier and quicker, but unless you’re getting it for free from your office (or via a torrent), you’re not going to upgrade. You wouldn’t choose to spend your own money on it—at least not at the price point it’s commonly sold at.
But even in this category, vendors don’t seem to be able to leave well enough alone. Just yesterday, Apple released a long-awaited new version 11 of its media organizer and player iTunes. It has an overhauled user interface, allegedly to make things easier for users. At least this seems to be what most pundits think on day one. Power users, however, have actually lost features in the upgrade. In iTunes 10.x, it was possible to set up a logical ‘faceted’ navigation using the column browser. In my case, for example, I see the following columns from left to right:
When Apple added in the grouped album view with album art, they certainly made me very happy. This was a practical way to manage a lot of music (I have some 4,500 albums/72,000 songs in my iTunes library). In iTunes 11, this view is no longer available. While some of the basic ‘column’ elements are still there, the left-to-right setup isn’t, and neither is the grouped album view with album art. I understand that in the greater scheme of things, this is a small change, and perhaps I’m particularly resistant to it because I have specific needs. However, I think I know what happened: iTunes fell prey to the same ‘fashion’ design principle outlined above, to the detriment of overall usability. The main feature investments in iTunes 11 are in fact in the area of displaying music in a grid format that’s eerily similar to iOS icons and the iTunes store. Digging around in the forums suggests I’m not the only one who thinks this. In the MacWorld Forums, user Alptekin Sanli says, “It’s unusable for classical music now (not that iTunes was ever too friendly with it). I fail to understand how anyone could think making the player look like the store would be a good idea. What’s next: a Finder that looks like the App Store?!”
And that, really, sums it up: at product maturity, Apple’s software design decisions are driven by the nebulous corporate need to make all Apple software look like all other Apple software, usability (and utility) be damned. The same is true for the mysterious unification of Windows and the Windows mobile OS. These adjustments are meant to further cement the corporate vision of how devices from this manufacturer look and behave and have no specific meaning beyond that.
Perhaps tech companies should adopt the motto of physicians: primum non nocere (first, do no harm). When creating a new version of a device, operating system or application, don’t take anything away that people love and use every day. If you insist on doing something different, at least provide the option of configuring the new thing to work in old and familiar ways. Users everywhere have arranged their personal workflows so that they’re optimized for the feature. Kathy Sierra made this point all the way back in 2006, and it continues to apply in a “universal truth” sort of way: “Try not to break things that were previously important to [your users].”
But I wonder if something more insidious and sinister is really at play. We have reached the point of maturity (and possibly product parity between different manufacturers) in mobile devices, desktop/notebook operating systems and PC applications. The categories are old and stable now, and disruptive new ones haven’t shown up in a few years (the last net-new blockbuster category were in fact the smartphone and the tablet). The manufacturers know this and have shifted their focus away from technical and usability innovation, and towards market share. This changed agenda is starting to become clearly visible in the products being released, whose ‘upgrades’—at least at this point in time—are mostly about creating a common family appearance, in the same way that Procter & Gamble might take steps to unify the look and feel of all products offered under the ‘Febreze’ or ‘Duracell’ brands.
There is many a political and ethical point to be made here, but I’ll leave discovering your own level of comfort with this–and your response to it—up to the reader. Personally, I oscillate between enjoying my Apple devices; choosing to stay on Windows 7 and iTunes 10.7 for now; and harbouring a deep skepticism about where this is all going. I can’t help but think that a certain ‘golden age’ of personal computing has come to an end, an age where certain liberties and freedoms were somewhat guaranteed by the diversity of whatever computing ecosystem you were using (whose relative openness, in turn, was a key commercial driver behind Microsoft’s and Apple’s success, respectively—think shareware and App Store) . I can see a day in the not-too-distant future when switching to Linux may no longer be a nerdy, somewhat left-of-centre choice but a necessary step in safeguarding some very basic civil liberties, in the same way you might choose to buy organic food or ethical and sustainable clothing.