The Drive to Make the Dumbest Smartphone

You’ve probably heard the old joke or some variation by now: “If cars were more like computers we would all be driving twenty-five dollar cars that got 1000 mi/gal, but for no reason whatsoever, your car would crash twice a day.”

Well, if your car was more like a smart phone:

  • It would do absolutely everything faster except its primary purpose: driving. That would be exactly the same – maybe a little worse.
  • All tolls on the road would go up and you’d be limited in how much you can drive in a given month.
  • It would have really sleek lines and a polished look that you would never get to see because you needed to cover it up at all times to avoid constant scratches, dents, and smudges from normal use.
  • It would only work on certain types of roads and only in your own country unless you’d wanted to swap out all the tires.
  • It would come with dozens of accessories you don’t want or need, but would be missing key features like a radio or air conditioning. But don’t worry, you can add these on later for an extra fee.
  • If it ever broke you couldn’t get it repaired or replace a part, the dealer would just swap it with an identical car.
  • The manufacturers would be competing with each other about who has the largest number of aftermarket add-ons, but if you install them anywhere by the dealership you void your warranty.
  • The interior would be many times smaller than your old car, but the windshield is five times larger.
  • It’s so simple to use. The manufacture didn’t want you to have to worry about little things like seat position, cup holders, window visors, or leg room so they made it one size fits all.
  • It will easily replace all your other modes of transportation unless you need to leave the road and then you have to get out.
  • You would have to fill up the tank at least once a day.
  • From the outside your car looks exactly like every other car on the road.
  • All the car manufacturers would be suing each other claiming they have exclusive rights to features like: “turning right”, “parking”, and “lockable doors”.
  • Even though you car works perfectly well for how you drive you’ll get a new one every couple of years when your lease runs out because the new one has a slightly better dashboard layout.

I read a post yesterday complaining about the proposed Windows Explorer interface for the upcoming Windows 8 operating system. At first, the article got me thinking, then it just got me mad. The author, MG Siegler, complains that Microsoft is clearly on the wrong path proposing that “simplicity and elegance are increasingly going to win the day”. This is the statement, and the assumption behind it that permeated the article that got me so frustrated. So many times I hear these two words spoken as if they are synonyms when nothing can be further from the truth. Simplicity is the elimination of complexity. Elegance is grace, taste, and style, or in another way of looking at it: disguising complexity as simplicity.

From my point of view, recent advances in smartphones have dramatically over-increased the simplicity of their systems in an effort to achieve elegance. The manufacturers have eliminated complexity rather than disguising it. In 2005, years before the iPhone or Android, I had a Windows Mobile 2005 smart phone. Running the native operating system alone, without a single add-on application installed I could:

  • Create a VPN connection to my home network
  • Establish a remote desktop connection to my PC
  • Automatically spell check every email before it was sent
  • Plug it into my USB port and treat it like a flash drive
  • Create, Read, and Edit Word and Excel documents
  • Download and install an application directly from any webpage.

Most of these features had already been available for years before Windows Mobile 2005. Today, if you were to buy any of the consumer smartphones on the market today, you’d be hard pressed to do even one or two of these tasks without installing additional software and some of them you simply can’t do at all. This is how far we have “advanced”. Even scarier is that this philosophy is being touted as the way of the future for all computer systems, including tablets, laptops, and desktops.

Mr. Siegler makes a point that millions of people every year are choosing these more simplistic smartphones and even produces the results of his own (self-admittedly un-scientific) survey that shows people hate the new non-simplistic Window’s Explorer interface. To my mind the same logic states that fast food is the best because everybody eats it.

I’m a developer at heart, not an administrative assistant or a sales manager, so I probably don’t use the typical office suite of products nearly as much as some people, but just in the past week, using Microsoft Office products I have:

  • Used a half-dozen self-defined rules to help filter and organize my mail in Outlook
  • Sorted an Excel spreadsheet by three different columns and added a chart
  • Commented and edited a Word document using the track changes feature so the original author could see my edits
  • Applied a global style to a document to bring it more inline with our standards
  • Opened up a fixed-width text file in Excel, edited a few rows, and saved the changes without changing the file format
  • Took and pasted an inline screen clip inside an email without opening a new application

Some of these tasks are simpler than others but all of them can be accomplished using Microsoft’s “Elegant” Ribbon UI. Without this I’d be left digging through menu systems or needing to memorize key combinations (sound familiar to Apple users?). Elegance is placing the controls so that I can find them easily without adding clutter, not just removing them or making it so that I have to play hide-and-seek every time I need to do something new. Mr. Siegler’s seemingly prefered design would trade productivity and functionality for the dubious benefit of simplicity. Emacs or vi are just about the most simple word processors you can get, and I bet there are people out there who can really pound out text on them, but there is a reason why only diehards use them.

Mr. Siegler even goes so far to state that there is no need for a file explorer tool in modern operating systems because “the concept of a ‘file’ is changing”. To return to the car analogy, he’s stating that because compact cars are selling so well companies making trucks and vans are doomed to failure. Frankly, the fact that my grandmother loves her smart phone doesn’t make me want to buy it for myself. I have my own preference in cars too and I think I’ll go with something with a little more muscle, thanks.

Somehow over the years, proponents of “Apple-style” operating system design have migrated from the laudable goal of “simplifying the user interface so that the user can get straight to work without the system getting in the way”, to “minimizing what the user can do so the system doesn’t have to be so complex”. It’s the one-size fit’s all user interface:

  • Many people are confused about the various options
  • We want to sell to those “many people”
  • Therefore, remove the options for everybody

The next time Mr. Siegler goes to buy a new car I hope he get’s talked into a soap-box racer. Afterall:

  • It gets the best gas mileage possible
  • No annoying features to get in your way
  • Anyone can drive one

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