Thursday, January 11, 2007

A Defining Technology Trend for 2007?

The sublime sweetness of simplicity

Technology has pervaded (some would say invaded) our personal lives irreversibly. While in the Orwellian 1980s this statement would have assumed ominous dimensions, today it merely causes most people to drool at the thought of the next cool device that is poised to hit the market.

Sure enough, there'll be plenty of sleek, gleaming devices that will come on the market this year, and they'll be jampacked with enough functionality to keep the most inveterate gadget freaks among us drooling well into the next year. And of course, they'll be ever smaller, cheaper and more powerful. But is there one defining trend that will dictate how technology products will evolve over the year?

I believe there is. And that trend is an inexorable march towards simplicity. Of making technology products, notorious today for being clunky, difficult and even intimidating, simpler to learn and use. Simplicity has long been something the customer has hankered after, and at last producers of tech products are beginning to listen and respond.

What is so profound about simplicity, one may ask, and isn't it obvious that products must be simple to learn and use? Well, for a start, they aren't! Creators of technology products have always had a propensity to overengineer their products, in a well-meaning but mistaken quest to pump in tons of functionality and the newest features. But that has begun to change over the last few years, and will change a lot more this year. What makes me think so?

The trend of simplicity and ease of use assuming such centrality is partly a logical consequence of the increasing socialization of technology, or the rapid rise in the use of technology to meet social needs - collaboration, sharing, getting together, interacting with family and friends, and so forth. This trend has seen technology being enthusisatically embraced by ever-younger people, and first-time users who tend to be unfamiliar with technology - constituencies that are far more likely to demand ease of learning and use than the traditional geeks and 'early adopters'. Also seen from a demand side, ease of use is one of 3 key determinants of success of a personal technology.

There are good supply side reasons as well, chief among which is that in a rapidly saturating market, growth goes to the player who wins more of those demanding, first-time users. (That is why innovation has increasingly come to mean delivering simple, easy to use products).

But there are massive supply-side constraints too. Think how much complex functionality a typical device - even the humble cell phone or digital camera - encapsulates. Often these are functionalities that did not exist even a few years ago. Just 10 or 12 years ago, talking on a telephone or surfing the internet for most of us meant sitting in one place, or at best being confined to one room. Today those activities are completely untethered. Less than a decade ago, getting your birthday party photographs meant waiting at least a day or two, and several trips to the studio. Today you can not only get those photos instantly, but you can even edit them yourself, and all for a fraction of the cost! Creating those new functionalities in just a period of a few years has meant that many complex technologies - from storage, display, communication to batteries - be mastered individually, and then integrated. Doing these well and delivering a package that is simple at the end of it is clearly a daunting task.

Perhaps more fundamentally, Moore's law relentlessly drives devices to grow smaller, cheaper and more powerful - what it does not do is drive devices to get simpler, or for diverse technologies to integrate better. (That is why innovation is so hard!).

Who are the gurus and pioneers of simplicity? Google has always been emblematic of minimality, a close cousin of simplicity. Google's Marisa Mayer likens their design philosophy to a Swiss Army Knife - neat, easy to carry, but possessing an enormous array of functionality*. Google is now turning it's attention to making web site design easy.

Apple has of course been the beacon of all designers who strive to make products that are elegant and easy to use. First there was the iconic iPod. Now, the iPhone (never mind the dubious monicker) has all the makings of a deserving descendant of this heritage by encapsulating a phenomenal range of functions in one neat package, to the point where commentators are calling it practically a full-fledged computer. It is now even being expected to carry on it's elegant shoulders the burden of bringing innovation, wrested away by Asia and Europe in recent years, back to the US.

Philips has wholeheartedly embraced the simplicity mantra. Sony and Canon have, without getting much credit for it, delivered for years some superbly engineered products. Motorola and Nokia are beginning to get it.

There are less fancied players too, who have hit the simplicity sweet spot. RIM's BlackBerry is widely regarded as a joy to use. The Open Source browser Firefox has fired the imagination of lots of users with its simple yet powerful set of features - it has garnered about 14% of the browser market and a fan following in the bargain.

Making a complex technology product easy to use is clearly a task that is far from easy. But the fact that vendors are trying hard to make their products easy to use is welcome news for consumers everywhere!
*However, the original minimalist look arose out of necessity.