For a recent Popular Science
story, author Larry Smith removed from his life all technology invented after 1954. Not surprisingly, he missed modern conveniences, but he also noticed the old-fashioned charm--and usefulness--of many old technologies.
Now, I'm not going to prattle on about the candlelight-evoking sounds of old vinyl LPs played over tube amplifiers or even the impenetrable magic of DOS or Unix. However, I do often find that brand-new products are lacking features or sensibilities that were there in previous versions.
I started this column by preparing a whole list of products that have not been improved (in my opinion) by time or version changes. In doing so, I started to wonder--why do products get worse over time? I believe there are three main reasons.
The tyranny of the masses
An economics lesson: Companies make more money when lots of people buy the same thing. So vendors cram functionality into their products, hoping to serve as much of their customer base as they can. The result: Feature bloat.
Another result: Good niche or experimental products that don't serve a mass market die--stranding the users who get attached to them. In my case, I used and loved an outlining tool called Grandview (for the Mac, it was More). It died for lack of users, and I moved to Ecco--a weird outliner/personal information manager that also failed to find an audience.
Today, Microsoft has built outlining, to various degrees, into at least three products: Word, PowerPoint, and OneNote. But none match Grandview or Ecco for features, simplicity, or consistency, and I miss the old days badly.
The tyranny of new technology
The infatuation with the new is related to Tyranny No. 1. Products naturally accumulate technologies over time, and the result can be, in hardware, actual physical bloat.
Case in point: I thought the Palm Vx was the best PDA available: functional, slim, light, and stylish. Then color screens came along, adding complexity, weight, bigger batteries, and more capable software. That software required faster CPUs, leading to even bigger batteries. Then PDAs started getting Wi-Fi, which needed--you guessed it--even bigger batteries. Companies thought that as long as you have a bigger battery, why not put in an even faster processor? This is the typical "death spiral" of portable device design.
Suddenly, handheld devices were twice as thick and heavy as a Palm V, and the new features were only arguably useful. Handhelds have finally fought their way back down to a reasonable size and weight again, but the middle years weren't pretty.
The tyranny of the corporation
Most companies serve their own needs before the real needs of the individual customer. Just look at the move to digital cable and digital cell phones. In both cases, companies can now cram more users on to their infrastructure by employing digital compression. This lets them lower costs (good) and offer additional services (also good), but quality suffers.
In particular, my cable television signal quality, formerly analog but now digital, stinks, and my fancy digital GSM-based cellular phone is no better, in terms of voice quality, than the old analog phone I had 10 years ago. In fact, due to the asymmetric nature of digital cellular technology, you can't always tell when the person you're talking to can't hear you. At least in the old days, the static told you to hold your tongue until it cleared.
In both cases, vendors could probably solve the issues by devoting additional bandwidth to quality, instead of to more users or more content. But until users cry bloody murder, they won't.
I want to close with some interesting news: Mercedes, which makes some of the fastest and most tech-forward cars on the planet, recently announced that it will be making some cars with less--not more--electronics. When a company that prides itself on cutting-edge products decides it's moving too fast on the gizmo front, maybe it's time some other industries paid attention.
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