22 Jan How we reached Peak Tech, and what developers can learn from the Germans about leaving well alone.
By John Smart, Head of Copy
Police looking younger? Music not as good as in my day? TV actors mumbling their lines so I have to turn the volume up to 11?
When it comes to indicators of onset middle age, I pretty much tick all the boxes. But there’s one area in which I refuse to accept my growing bafflement is down to my advancing years.
I’ve never been a tech nerd. But I’m no Luddite either. I Skype. I Tweet. I’m fluent in Uber, iCloud and Google Drive. Until a year or two ago, my Millennial son came to me to sort out his tech problems.
But here’s the thing. The very aspect of tech that so far has made it so great – its constant evolution – is now starting to erode its usefulness.
In short, we’ve come to a point where technology has been refined to such a peak of efficiency that any further development can only make it less efficient and harder to use.
(I call this ’Smart’s Third Law’. First, because I like the idea of having a law named after me and second, because it kind of suggests I have two others already.)
But rather than leaving well alone, ‘developing’ is what tech companies are born to do.
The clue, after all, is in the name. Nobody bills themselves as an app ‘manufacturer’. Or an app ‘smith’. ‘Development’, with its explicit promise of ongoing refinement is an open ended process. Shark like, apps have to keep on moving forward lest they sink to the bottom of the App Store rankings and die.
And now, because it’s got nowhere to go but down, the quality of our tech is deteriorating. All, ironically, in pursuit of a better ‘user experience.’
By way of illustration, Adobe Acrobat was for years the leading PDF viewer and collaboration platform. Easy to use. Easy to interpret. Unili last year, someone decided it would be a good idea stir the pot so the ‘Comments’ function is disabled by default and its ‘on’ switch buried in a Tools dashboard, along with all the other other essential functions that once made Acrobat such a breeze.
Photoshop no longer has a freehand crop tool. Instead, you have to create elaborate templates for every conceivable crop you want to carry out. FFS Adobe, I don’t know the dimensions of the crop I want before I do it! I just want to drag until it looks like what I had in mind.
Skype popped up with a new look on my desktop a month or two ago. It no longer allows you to share windows, just entire screens. It doesn’t tell you someone is trying to call when you’re in another conversation, but it does pop up a message saying they tried to get hold of you after they’ve given up. And don’t get me started on that ringtone remix..
Users press ganged into Apple Music find tracks in their iTunes collections jumbled, missing and some cases replaced by alternative versions- even if they owned or ripped the originals legally.
Successive iOS upgrades have erased photo libraries and rinsed battery life.
And when I Googled a Microsoft Word update fix recently, the second of gazillions of results to come up had this as a Meta Description: ‘Use our guided walk through to help you resolve Windows Update issues using the error code you got while updating your version of Windows’ (my italics, signifying typing through clenched teeth of frustration).
I’ll say it again: This isn’t granddad out of his depth trying to work the new VCR; this is an industry turning its back on apps and hardware that once shipped, at Steve Jobs’ insistence, with no user manual because they were beautifully, seamlessly intuitive and understood at a level that bypassed conscious effort. But no more.
Yes, I know product innovation and the spur of competition are the twin beating hearts of democratic capitalism. I’ve used the power of ‘new and improved and ‘our best ever…’ enough times in my career.
But when Unilever launch a new toothpaste or Sony a new TV, it’s the end of a long, investment heavy process. New formulations have to be researched and certified. Production lines modernised and rejigged. It doesn’t come fast, or cheap. In short, manufacturers have got a lot of skin in the game when it comes product innovation. Something which, on the whole, stops them flinging ‘improvements’ into the market willy nilly.
Contrast that with app updates. A few new lines of code here, a little update there and developers can serve you with a new version of an app you were perfectly happy with like a thief in the night. Or U2 with a new album to foist on their adoring world fanbase.
We’ve been here before, of course. In another time and another sector.
Back in the heady days of the post war manufacturing boom, the American auto industry was going through a golden age. Fat on the ‘peace dividend’ that came from converting its military production lines into car plants for the home market, it had capacity far and away above of demand.
The answer? Build obsolescence into the product cycle. Turn what was a high ticket item, even in an era of growing consumer affluence, into a disposal consumer trinket, as subject to the whims of fashion as any high street couture.
In short, the auto trade weaponised the concept of ‘this year’s model’ to the extent that to be still driving the ‘56 with the fins when the ‘57 with the much lower trunk line was already on the forecourts was, frankly, a downright un-American act of anti-consumerism.
Hey, it complicated things for the dealers and led to a nightmare of rotating stock and and spare parts, but it sold cars in their millions, and that was the important thing.
Then into this ouroboros of supply and demand stepped a New York adman with a funny little foreign car to sell. One designed and built under the Nazi party’s push for a ‘people’s car’ and manufactured in Wolfsburg, Germany.
Bill Bernbach understood what Detroit didn’t about the VW Bug. It was simple. It was unassuming. And most importantly of all it didn’t transform itself into an entirely different model from one year to the next. And any changes that were made, were made sparingly, as subtle improvements to the original.
(By the way, I can see all you millennials at the back, slapping your foreheads and thinking ‘when will all these old ad guys stop banging on about Bernbach and the creative revolution? It’s 2018, for Chrissake!’ Well , the answer is never. It’s like asking Brian Cox to explain the origin of the universe without mentioning the Big Bang, so sit up and listen. You might learn something.)
What the US auto industry looked on as weaknesses, Bernbach built on as strengths. If the bug wasn’t broke, why fix it? If its little air cooled engine was as efficient as it could be, why change it?
From 1959 to the day the last Bug rolled off the production line, DDBs work for VW was a hymn to folksy, uncomplicated ‘it just works’ simplicity.
Today, we worship at the altar of innovation. We assume that because something is new, it’s better. Often though, it’s just different. And different isn’t always better.
Maybe soon, a bold developer or one of the leading tech giants will have the guts to say “That’s it. This app, or this piece of software is complete. It does the job it’s intended to do, and no amount of innovation can possibly make it do it better. We’re parking it right here.”
But I doubt it. Because, to paraphrase Dr Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, “Their developers are so preoccupied with whether they could, they never stop to think if they should.”