The Poetry in Not Pleasing Everyone

Now that the dust has settled on the iPad announcement — and the predictable, kabuki-light conflict has begun to play out between tech pundits who believe that Apple botched the iPad by leaving out a camera and Adobe Flash and traditional journalists who feel that the iPad emits rainbows and unicorns and will, incidentally, also save their industry…. Amid the din of all this senseless (seemingly ceaseless) chattering, I am starting to hear an interesting question emerge — one ultimately more important than “Will the iPad succeed or will it fail?”

That question is “What makes any piece of technology succeed or fail?”

What Is It?

I’m certainly not alone in thinking about the bigger picture of what really matters when it comes to the way we use and design our software and hardware.  Daniel Jalkut recently had an interesting post on his blog about the oft-predicted “death of the desktop” and I thought that John Gruber’s analogy comparing the emergence of iPad-like devices to the advent of the automatic transmission was very timely.  It’s truly one of those moments where there is something in the air — and we’re all standing around, trying to figure out what it was exactly that we just got a whiff of.

I find myself agreeing with those who suggest that, if designers focused less on making sure that everyone has exactly the same experience on every device and more on making sure that the right people have an incredible experience with their product, we’d all be better off.

A “Boutique Mentality”

This principle is reflected in the iPad’s design and, more importantly, it’s where new and better things usually come from.

Clearly, one piece of technology can’t be all things to all people and, even in areas with agreed-upon “standards”, sometimes you’ve just got to go your own way.  The iPad is an interesting example because Apple is applying what I would call a “boutique mentality” to a mass-market product.

To me, a “boutique mentality” is really just:

  • A desire to make things as you think they ought to be made, not necessarily with mass appeal in mind.
  • A belief that different products are “right” for different people.

The MacWorld Expo is running this week and I’m sure that, if you walked the floor of the Moscone Center and talked to a few developers in their booths, you’d quickly get a feel for just how deeply rooted this tradition is within the Mac community.

But let’s be frank — There are tradeoffs to breaking off from the herd. Wander too far away from where people expect you to be and, after a while, those people will start interviewing your replacement… When you’re talking about products and not people, the difference is that no one will send out a search party to look for you if you’re a company that strays off course.

You’re just lost.

“Wait…What’s My Job Again?”

I’m a big fan of The Grey Album and — a little confession here — I’ve always liked my chocolate and peanut butter together.  I also like to “mash-up” technologies by connecting programs together (as you might expect from a guy who writes and publishes AppleScripts on his website).  Sometimes, I do it for money but, just as often, I do it for fun — that Mad Scientist, white lab-coat joy of tinkering around and creating Frankenstein making something cool!

One product that I use daily on my Mac is a note-taking application called Evernote.  I recommend it to almost all of my clients — and I’ve both enjoyed using the growing number of integrations with apps like reQallCurio, and JotNot and creating my own “mash-ups” with AppleScript. But for as much as I personally love the scope and the “WOW!” factor of Evernote’s incredible array of features, I can’t allow myself to get truly carried away by them.

After all, my job is as a consultant who helps people “digitize their lives” and Evernote’s “job” is to help people collect all their information into one place. So, if you accept the premise that a program can have a job, then Evernote should be trying to do the things most directly related to that job better than anyone else. Things like… Having text come out of their program the way that it goes in. Or getting it to go in correctly in the first place. Or being able to customize a workflow for people to easily use Apple Mail if they want to.

You know —  the sine qua non features of a Note-Taking app on a Mac.

Sadly, these are very things that Evernote has been struggling with recently and, at the same time, the market for Note-Taking software has been growing both more crowded and more competitive. Yojimbo and DEVONthink Pro (two mainstays in the Mac market) have seen substantial upgrades — and other great offerings like SOHO, Instapaper, Simplenote, Notational Velocity are competing for attention as well. Each is a little different from the others, but all are really solid, customizable, Mac-friendly apps that seem to do “the basics” very well, indeed. Granted — none of these companies is attempting what I think is a core strength of Evernote: Building a truly multi-platform architecture for accessing your most important information…everywhere!

But instead, many of them are focusing on ways that refine how they deliver on the “core promise” they are making to their users.  It seems to me that apps like Notational Velocity are asking a different question than “What else can we put in our product?”

It’s “What can we get out of the way so that it’s easier to use?”

Aristotle Had An iPad?

Going back to the iPad for a moment, Federico Viticci’s recent post on MacStories (entitled The iPad, Aristotle and the “OS Democracy”) went even further, suggesting that companies like Apple and Evernote have a duty to say “NO!” to things that divert from a product’s core mission and to exert tight control over both the platform and how people can use it. Evernote has a growing team of smart, talented (and, in my experience, nice) people who are working hard at making their product great — and any work to improve a program’s plumbing takes a while to finish when you’ve already got a lot of water flowing through the pipes, as it were.

I hope that they’re being given the resources and tools that they need to work fast because, until that plumbing is fixed, people may be turned off by their initial impressions with Evernote — before they even have a chance to realize what a great, deep product it actually is.

And just as other programs will emerge to replace Evernote should they not deliver on their core promises, the iPad will also rise or fall depending on how it can deliver on what it promises. There is enough competition in the marketplace right now to ensure that people who want, for example, a Flash-ready device can have one. If Apple loses enough market-share over their decision to exclude Flash, I suspect they would reconsider (or knowing them, they would find an “Apple way” to implement it).  Adobe dominated the space with Flash for a while and now, to me, it’s clear that other standards are emerging to take its place. If Adobe sees enough people walking away from the Flash platform, I’m sure they’ll build a new platform where everyone is now standing! So, in that Aristotelean sense, perhaps the “Constitution of the Marketplace” is the key — not how Apple or Evernote run their respective fiefdoms.

But maybe there’s one more thing that invoking Aristotle can add to this conversation…. After all, he had at least — you know — one or two interesting thoughts about the forms that things take.

Finding Freedom In Your Limitations

To me, picking a piece of technology is almost as personal as choosing a guitar, a paintbrush, or a pen. The limitations of the tools and the forms that we work with ultimately give things their distinctive shape. It’s less important to focus on what a particular device does or doesn’t have — so long as it delivers on its core promises.  The original 8-bit gaming systems are still being recreated on modern hardware. Some people are still keeping the Amiga OS alive… Why? Maybe it’s nostalgia, but maybe it’s because the limitations of those platforms created something distinctive — and, after all, distinctions are at the heart of aesthetics. When playing back a piece of music, the Commodore 64 isn’t going to sound like “the real thing” — and sometimes that’s pretty cool!

With poetry, every style is a world unto itself. If you’re not a fan of haiku, there may be sonnets that you’d enjoy instead. Both are poems — but a haiku is a haiku and a sonnet is a sonnet. Neither is trying to be all things to all people.

Each has its place. A haiku might be perfect for capturing the ineffable aspects of nature but if you are trying to win back someone’s heart, I’d suggest something less like “Old pond . . . a frog leaps in water’s sound” and more like “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”

That particular “technology” has been succeeding for many years now because, in poetry as in life, there is a continuing refinement of both the tools we use and an evolution in what we use those tools to create.

Personally, I like what the iPad promises. I think it will easily meet that definition of success.

And so long as a thing can deliver on the poetry that it promises, we will be able to decide the right moments to use it — and whether to like it or not — based upon our personal judgement and tastes.

2 Responses to “The Poetry in Not Pleasing Everyone”

  1. Tim Waters February 19, 2010 at 10:03 am #

    Very well done. I have never thought of comparing tech to poetry. As a fan of poetry (well sort of, certainly as my wife says a lot more than most men) I think your analogy is right on target and gives me much food for thought.


    • Justin February 24, 2010 at 3:02 pm #

      Thanks for your comment, Tim!