The iPad paradox: Less is more

A new trend has emerged where gadget limitations are touted as features

The introduction of Apple's iPad predictably divided gadget fans into "love it" and "hate it" camps.

The haters say iPad lacks multitasking, a webcam, Flash support, a USB port, massive storage, a removable battery, CD and DVD support, RAM upgradability, multiple OS support and other features.

The lovers are less clear about why they want one. So allow me to propose the same list as above. It works just as well. The iPad is desirable for what it doesn't do -- can't do -- as much as for what it can do.

A strange trend has emerged that violates the more-is-better ethos of American consumer culture. Some products and services are touting limitations as desirable "features." And consumers are loving it.

This strikes some as Orwellian doublespeak: "War is peace." "Freedom is slavery." "Less is more."

But the truth is that people don't buy consumer electronics for the quantity of features. They buy it for the quality of experience.

For technical users, having more features means a better experience. So-called power users are harassed and annoyed by limitations, by the inability to do something they want to do. They feel a thrill when they're empowered to do some useful new thing.

But for most users, having more features degrades experience. People suffer information overload and its ugly cousin, runaway gadget complexity. They're harassed and annoyed, not by limitations, but by features they can't find or figure out, and by problems they don't understand. They feel a thrill when gadgets perform basic tasks without fail or hassle.

The vast majority of ordinary PC users I've talked to have problems on their PCs, laptops and netbooks that bother them greatly but they cannot fix. The sound card isn't working right. I can't make this dialog box go away. Why can't I print?

Gadget overcomplexity doesn't exist in a vacuum. It's joined by the growing overcomplexity of life in general. People spend enormous amounts of time and energy these days navigating automated help services and dealing with one complicated mess after another. The relationship between people and their banks, insurance companies, health care providers and government has become hostile, maddening and exhausting.

The last thing people need is PC-related problems they don't understand when, say, paying taxes online.

Technical people always complain about being buttonholed at every family get-together by relatives who want "free tech support." But why do they want this? Why do they need it? The answer is that consumer technology is overly complex.

And whose fault is it?

Unfortunately, it's my fault. And possibly your fault. It's the fault of everyone, including marketers, who relentlessly call for more, more and ever more features. Combine this with our calls for backward compatibility, and the result is systems that do everything. They're so feature-rich, so complex, that some people can't get them to do anything.

Look what I can't do!

I've noticed a trend online recently of new services whose main feature is that they hardly do anything.

Twitter was the first major site in this new trend, which boldly asserted its limitations as features. "You can't send more than 140 characters!" "No pictures!" "No formatting!" "It does hardly anything!" Welcome to the future.

Hard to believe now, but remember when MySpace was the dominant social network? MySpace gave us so many features that people could, did and do plaster their profiles with incredible (usually incredibly ugly) customization. It was early with apps and add-ons. Not Facebook. It turns out that social networking fans wanted a closed system, locked down and feature-limited.

I've noticed this trend in the reminders and to-do-list world. Once, most people used an organizer application, like Microsoft Outlook, to manage their to-do lists. Then a new wave of more limited task managers rolled onshore with the Web 2.0 tsunami. Remember the Milk was typical of the first wave. Then came more desirable and less feature-rich services like Todoist. The trend toward less continued with TeuxDeux, which is incredibly "feature-poor." And if that's too capable, you can always embrace Now Do This, which is essentially a blank page with one to-do item on it, and a link to add what comes next in the series.

We've seen this same devolution in the areas of online backup, blog design, calendaring and a whole range of social and communications online services. And, really, you can't reduce the number of features of a communications service much more than this.

The less-is-more world is here. Get used to it.

And if you're going to argue with an iPad fan about why netbooks are better, don't bother with listing what the iPad cannot do. Limitations are what people want now.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at, follow him on Twitter or his blog, The Raw Feed.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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