We Are Living in the Future

…tell you how I know.
I read it in the paper
15 years ago.
John Prine

I try not to get to obsessive about techy gadgets, but man, that iPhone is just brilliant — and not as much for what it does, but for how it works. It’s like those seamless, intuitive, nice-to-look-at interfaces that futuristic sci-fi movie makers design, but that electronics companies never seem to be able to make.1

  1. That’s what frustrates me about most electronics companies (and most companies in general): they’re not really trying to innovate; they’re just hacking together stuff. Movie makers design cool gadgets because those gadgets are based on how they look and feel; not the underlying electronics and technology. Real-life technology companies, on the other hand, have their engineers put together some electronic components. Then, a programmer builds software on top of that. Then a crappy UI gets designed. Finally, it’s all just thrown together as cheaply as possible into a plastic box that’s designed to be easy to manufacture. So, you get a mediocre device that was designed from the wrong direction by a bunch of engineers/designers/etc.

    Some of those tradespeople may have been able to do some great things if their role in the design process wasn’t so limited by every other part of the process. Picture 25 people all holding a pencil above a piece of paper. It’s only one pencil and everyone has a firm grip on it, so they all have to move in the same direction. Think about how hard it would be to draw something creative when you have to completely coordinate every movement with 24 other people. Even if each person was a fantastic artist, you’d be lucky to get a simple smiley face on that piece of paper. It’s like the old “weakest link in the chain” scenario, except exponentially worse because the limitations of each member are compounded. So, when an electronics company manages to create even the slightest improvement (the equivalent of eyebrows on the aforementioned smiley face), it’s considered a “groundbreaking innovation.” Nobody seems to care that they’re just squeezing a little more paint out of the same old tube.

    So, why this creative gridlock? It seems to me that there are two types of technology companies: The first being the type that have lots of money and resources for product development and marketing, but are stymied by big committees and giant development teams. The second being the type of company that has great ideas but much more limited resources. (I remember seeing info on the Optimus Keyboard over a year ago, and it still hasn’t made it to market.)

    I think the big companies think that larger development teams mean more-bigger-better ideas. When, in fact, big development teams usually handicap the brightest minds. Democratic teamwork is crippling. The only way you can take advantage of a large group of minds is to have one genius overseeing the whole thing, cherry picking the best ideas and integrating them into a single, brilliant, focused vision.

    Apple is one of the few companies that I know of which has the resources to produce expensive things, yet is able to rest its fate in the hands (and minds) of a tiny handful of brilliant people. I just hope there is always at least one company like Apple to lead us into the technological future. ↑ back up there

comment feed And the ensuing discussion…

  1. 1

    Jan 10th, 2007 at 9:45 am Jason C

    You’re the only person I know who puts 85% of their post in a footnote. However, I think you nailed a lot about what makes the iPhone important and what hinders many well-intentioned design ideas. As an engineer myself (totally different field, of course) I think engineers tend to make the absolute worst industrial designers. It’s simply not their role in the process.

    Also, I think it’s important to note that for Apple, the UI doesn’t end at the phones docking port. The ability to easily sync. the iPhone with a pc can’t be overstated, in my opinion.

  2. 2

    Jan 10th, 2007 at 1:26 pm Ryan-O

    Even though Windows-based computers (and other devises) have come a long way over the past 30 years, they still operate using the same basic principle today: “PEOPLE trying to speak a COMPUTER’s language.”

    From the first “byte,” Apple has remained intensely focused on shifting that paradigm. With each new technology, they find a fresh way to refine their focus: “COMPUTERS learning to speak the HUMAN language.”

    With the iPhone, Apple appears to have lowered the limbo bar of innovation yet again. “Okay, competition, How low can you go?”

Comments are closed.

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