An Ode to Simpler Stuff
There’s something that loves a multipurpose gadget. The fabled Swiss Army Knife, the microwave oven, the rice cookers that can also make soup and steam break, the spork, the universal chargers and screw drivers and anything else that claims to be universal anything, the crazy tools shown on late night TV. The computer, even, or the iPhone with its promise that “there’s an app for that.” There’s something deep within us that automatically feels we’re getting a better deal when the thing we buy can be used for more than one thing. The more, the merrier.
And yet, seriously, how many of the multi-purpose gadgets do you really use daily (putting aside for the moment your computer and smartphone, since they’re a somewhat different category of everything devices). The best Swiss Army Knife’s screwdriver will never be as good as any standalone screwdriver, and its knives would never stand up to a top-quality real knife. The microwave is only half-way good at anything it does, and you likely only use your rice cooker to cook rice anyhow. And the poor spork is terrible at everything, no matter how much you want to love it.
No matter how much engineering and design and love and care you put into a multipurpose device—and it will take a lot more effort to make anything that does a ton of stuff—it’s always at this weird interception between everything it’s trying to do. It may be ok at a lot of things, but it’s not great at any.
Yet there’s also something that loves the simpler tools. The knife, forged with skills passed down through generations. The clock, ticking steadily for decades. The wood-fired oven, the hammer, the paintbrush, the pencil and paper. We ascribe mastery to those who use them, genius to those who invented them. Those tools may just do one job, but they’ll do them great. No ifs, ands, or buts.
Their simpleness has made them great.
That’s the genius—and surprise—behind the tech gadgets that do just one thing, like the Kindle Paperwhite, a DSLR, an original iPod, or even the Fitbit. They do just one thing, and they do that thing great.
That’s why the iPod Classic was great—that clickwheel and the whole UI were designed just around your music. In the same way, the Kindle (and this is referring to the eInk reader Kindles, not the newer Kindle tablets) manages to have a much better reading experience—and also is far easier to select text in—than any reading app on another gadget, simply because it’s designed just for reading text. When it lets you select text to highlight it, it can do that great since it’s just designed for books. There’s less features, but the features it has can be the best possible for that one scenario. Plus, since its only focused on one thing, its battery life is astounding.
Same goes for a DSLR. I’m so accustomed to random tech interfaces (say, the ones on a microwave or a car’s stereo) being terrible that I just assumed my Canon DSLR’s touchscreen interface would be atrocious. No big deal: I bought it for optics, and the screen just needs to show pictures. But then, surprise of surprises, it’s actually nice. There’s quick access to the photo settings you need, silky smooth swiping between pictures, and little else. And that’s all there needs to be.
Focus breeds something far closer to perfection, almost without trying. Perhaps you can improve on the Kindle or DSLR or iPod interface, but absolutely not by adding features. If anything, you’d only make them better by simplifying them even further, removing all extraneous parts until they’re as razor focused as a time-honed sword.
It’s not just traditional tools that can be single-purpose and focused. Software, too, can be a honed tool that’s perfect for just one thing. There’s Instapaper, with its simple idea to save article to read later and nothing else. There’s iA Writer, the most minimal writing app possible with nary a setting in sight—the closest to a digital typewriter yet. There’s web browsers like Safari, that with each release get closer and closer to having no UI and only the web pages you’re looking at. There’s even something more valuable in extremely focused apps—you can find all types of unique use cases for a read later app or a plain text writing app or anything else that’s focused, just because it’s great at one thing.
Tie a lot of small tools that are great at one thing together, and you’ve got a set of tools that’ll do the stuff you need far better than one piece of software that’s supposed to do everything.
And here’s where I wonder at the current state of the supposedly “smart” watch market. There’s the watches that are essentially trying to cram everything from a phone into a smaller screen on your wrist, while still requiring you to also carry a phone. They’re marketed as things that can do everything: show directions on the go, take pictures, show notifications, and more.
But they don’t do anything great. They by design won’t replace your phone, and are instead essentially just an external display. They make for great demos—or at least they should—but in practical life there’s zero pressing need to use one.
The Fitbit is interesting, since it’s just designed to be a sensor that sends data to your phone about your exercise and movements. It’s simple, single-purpose, and has an obvious use case. Maybe it’s not as exciting since it can’t do so much, but at least it’s easy to explain why one would want to use it.
I don’t know what Apple’s going to do with the wearables market, or if they’ll release an iWatch. All I know is that if I’m going to buy yet another gadget, I’d rather it have a specific thing it does great, and little else. The iPhone’s the hub, the multipurpose device. It’s great at that. Let that remain. Then give us something else that’ll make the iPhone better, not just duplicate features it already has.
Simplify. That’ll sell.