Technical Overload: Not in Apple’s Playbook

“Dealing with complexity is an inefficient and unnecessary waste of time, attention and mental energy. There is never any justification for things being complex when they could be simple.” — Edward de Bono

Technology is developing at an ever faster pace. Technology developments, in turn, provide a way to develop even newer technologies. Companies want to sell us these new technologies, but only a few company’s products, like Apple’s, come with coping mechanisms included at no extra charge. We don’t even realize it’s happening.

I was pondering the blitz of news on Tuesday morning. Google Music, Microsoft buying Skype, and the Senate hearings on mobile privacy chaired by Sen. Al Franken. Coincidentally, just the night before, I was reading the thoughts of Kevin Kelly (“What Technology Wants”) related to technology choices we make. It all got me thinking.

You may have noticed that the pace of technology has been accelerating. Companies are desperately seeking a way to grow and sell their technology to us, but many fail. We are amazed by Apple’s ability to grow amidst this mind-numbing crush towards technology advancement.

We tend to attribue that to some magic Apple has, but I’m going to suggest that Apple is exploiting a human characteristic that we don’t often think about: whether we know it or not, consciously or subconsciously, we all manage complexity. When you think about it, there are very few people who actively seek technology complexity. Instead, they develop various coping and management mechanisms.

A maze


Some people do this by cutting the TV cord. Some like driving an older car, a car whose carburetor they can tinker with and doesn’t require a 400 page manual in which is buried the instructions for changing the clock on the dashboard. Some instinctively avoid PCs and Windows and stick with a Macintosh. Some people refuse to have certain kinds of products, like a refrigerator with an IP address, electric can openers or point and shoot cameras (with their tiny, 400 page instruction manuals). Some parents, confronted daily by work, bill paying and a sick baby refuse to sit down with the manual for the DVR. The spouse is, perhaps, shocked by this disinterest.

You may have a friend who refuses to own a smartphone, and, at first, you consider her a Luddite. That is, until you find out that she’s a Ph.D. chemist, was once a concert pianist, builds ships in a bottle, and fixes broken VCRs as a hobby. Her preferred tech bucket is already full.

I know that in my own case, I have avoided the sync features of MobileMe. I use the e-mail and storage only. I refuse to own or use an Apple Time Capsule, not because it’s complex, but for the complexities associated with either the storage or the Wi-Fi component failures. I gave up on Pogoplug, not because it isn’t cool, but because the maintenance to utilization factor was too high. I no longer use my Olympus Stylus 770SW (point and shoot) camera; there’s too much to relearn every time I use it, and the iPhone 4’s camera turns out to be sufficient.* And it has e-mail!

Apple’s Layered Approach

This idea of managed complexity is important to Apple’s success. Think about how you and your friends use Mac OS X. Do you know anyone still on Leopard? They’re out there. For a few, staying behind is required for compatibility with mission critical software, but for many others, upgrading to Snow Leopard is just added cost and complexity. We make fun of how brain-dead the Time Machine product is, but many people don’t even use that: it requires an investment in time and attention even if small. It can fill up and overflow one’s mental bucket of allowed complexity. So now we know why Time Machine is designed the way it is.

Managing complexity is something a product can entice you into. A quick start guide or very brief manual suggests that can get going with the fundamentals. Details can be worked out later. Mac OS X, for example, is a complex UNIX operating system, but one can approach it on a very simple level for starters and then explore the UNIX shell only if desired. iOS adheres to the principle cited above in the theme quote, and that’s why the iPad is so approachable. Booting up a notebook, logging in, and double clicking a browser just to do a Google search has too many tiresome layers. An iPad is always on and always approachable. Swipe and go.

Apple, Netflix, Bose, Twitter and Amazon, to name a few, make using their products effortless. We keep on buying products from Amazon and movies from Netflix because our involvement is short, sweet, and a no-brainer. No doubt many families assign the task of mailing back the DVD to one of the kids, it’s so simple.

Other products place demands on us. They abuse us and fritter our time away. They try to be cool, but we yawn when we look at the features we’ll never use.

What’s interesting to me is that everyone creates a unique subset of technology that serves them. New technologies are either rejected out of hand or, perhaps, a new technology is adopted, but an older one is dropped to make room in one’s mental space for a new one. In a sense, it’s similar to how we manage our Netflix queue. If we didn’t do this, our lives would spiral out of control. 

No Room at the In

If technology companies want to be successful, they have generally 30 seconds on TV to make the case that this product can be added to our technology life easily, painlessly and that the benefit outweighs what we were doing before. They seek to create inroads. When I watch one of the Motorola Xoom commercials, for example, I think that some people may not want to feel like they’ll have to be a jet pilot. Rather, a cozy tablet sitting on a sofa (Apple) may be preferable.

Many companies make self-important lists of features for new products they think we’ll love, but there’s little recognition that we make (and juggle) a list of technologies we find useful and can tolerate. Sometimes our technology bucket is more full than they want to believe. Then they wonder why they’ve failed while Apple succeeds.

Success in the consumer technology market requires a finely tuned sense of what customers can tolerate and how they juggle their technical life. CEOs who compete with Apple aren’t accustomed to having that sense and making that call. So far Apple has been adept at understanding that part of us that we weren’t even aware of. Then, when we discover the new Apple product, there is joy. And long lines at Apple’s stores.


* Of course, I’m wise enough to know that for really good photos, I’ll need my Nikon DSLR.