The Desktop Critic: The Simplicity Backlash

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Shortly after the imac became the numero uno jaw-dropping record-smasher of all time, a funny thing happened. People began to believe that it is a whole new breed of machine–not a Mac, not even a computer, but some kind of cool-looking, super-simple Internet appliance. One stranger after another e-mailed me: "Are you going to write The iMac for Dummies?"

I'd reply: "You don't need such a book. Macs for Dummies has everything you need."

And they'd write back: "Oh, too bad. Well, maybe the bookstore has something on iMacs."

I'd sit there dumbfounded that Apple's marketing has been so effective in convincing the public that the iMac is something utterly new. (And believe me, it's been a long time since anyone used the words "effective," "Apple," and "marketing" in the same sentence.)

But come to think of it, the iMac isn't the only startling (although delightful) marketing phenomenon we've witnessed lately. How about the PalmPilot? This gadget is neither the cheapest, smallest, nor the most-featured handheld computer–yet it commands 65 percent of all palmtop sales, trouncing even Microsoft's PalmPilot look-alikes. Other palmtops have color screens, built-in modems, keyboards, PC Card slots–but not the PalmPilot. Have consumers lost their minds?

Not a bit. The iMac and the PalmPilot are both winners in a contest that many manufacturers don't even realize they're playing: the simplicity war. The iMac's success isn't based on price alone (plenty of Wintel boxes are cheaper still), nor on speed (plenty of Macs are faster), nor on its looks, great as they are. The one thing it's got over all other personal computers is the simplicity factor. In this regard, Apple's ads hit the nail on the head: you literally take this thing out of the box, plug it in, and turn it on.

Now that people can understand. The iMac comes closer than ever to the appliance Steve Jobs has dreamed about making since 1984. With any other computer, consumers must face the fear of the unknown (and the fear of assembly). But the iMac sets up like a cordless phone.

Simplicity has more than emotional payoffs, though: it also confers terrific technological benefits. The iMac has no SCSI jack–iMac owners will never have to experience the headaches of termination, SCSI IDs, and cable math. (Indeed, no cables at all snake out from behind the machine–the phone and keyboard cables are the only ones that protrude, and they come out of the much more accessible side of the iMac. Why did it take the computer industry 20 years to think of that?)

Similarly, the PalmPilot, in its sweet gray-scale way, runs for two or three months on a pair of AAA batteries–compared with the 15 to 20 hours you can get out of a color Windows CE palmtop. And because its operating system is so compactly designed, the software programs available for it are models of stability and concise coding. A 75K PalmPilot application is considered a behemoth.

In other words, there's a simplicity backlash in this country, and clever tech companies are making millions from it. But wherever there's money to be made, one company is sure to show up to feed at the trough. Guess who?

"Simplicity is now a jihad at Microsoft," spokesman Greg Shaw told U.S. News & World Report. Bill Gates himself is leading the charge. After Windows gave him a typically ridiculous error message ("The DHCP client could not obtain an IP address"), he pounded out a 14-page memo outlining the company's new simplicity campaign, and e-mailed it to all Microsoft executives.

Now that's news; Microsoft and "simplicity" have never appeared in the same sentence before. Has Microsoft finally realized the error of its bloated ways? Has it finally recognized the value of tight, streamlined coding that serves a focused purpose?

Nah. Call me cynical, but excuse me: where was Microsoft's aversion to software bloat during the years when it was selling us 150MB software? Sounds like Microsoft, having watched its products approach end-stage featuritis, has realized that there's only one way it can keep selling us upgrades: by starting to remove the layers of complexity it's spent the last 15 years piling on. What a strategy! You know what? It can't lose.

No matter; I applaud simplicity in technology wherever it may be found. Besides, I can't criticize Microsoft for trying to capitalize on the simplicity movement–my latest book, The iMac for Dummies, just came out.

http://www.davidpogue.comTales from the Tech Line,

February 1999 page: 188

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