Topics include: programming, Apple, Unix, gadgets, large-scale web sites and other nerdy stuff.

The Law of Crappy Gadgets

2005-04-29 23:50:25

If I rule so much, I should have a law or two named after me. You know, like Moore's Law or Metcalfe's Law. It's only fitting. So here it is:

A gadget's crappyness is proportional to the square of the number of functions it performs.

First, a gadget: any small electronic device that does something or various somethings. It probably must have at least one button, preferably some kind of display, and be small enough to fit in a pocket. Possibly it could be a little bigger, but we're getting to appliance territory there, and WHOA there buddy! We're talking about gadgets.

Next, crappyness: this is a simple concept. Pretty much every gadget has good points. However, it's not the "goodness" that matters. It's the crappyness (or absense of crappyness) of something that determines whether you will like it.

Finally, functions: functions are what some gadget can do. Some good examples of functions are: making phone calls, playing music, storing and organizing stuff, doing math, "doing" email, etc. The point is that a "function" is a pretty big, general thing.

Now, back to billo's law. The basic idea is that as you add functions to a gadget it becomes crappier precipitously. A gadget with one function is going to have an inherent crappyness level of 1. If the gadget is created by talented designers and engineers, and they work really hard and know their craft, they have a good chance of making a nice gadget with very low crappyness. People will like it very much if they succeed.

Suppose we add a function to the gadget. Let's say the gadget started off as a phone, and let's say the creators did a great job, and it was a great phone with barely detectable crappyness. Some genius at the company decides that the phone should do something else: it should be a little PDA, and do calendar and contact management functions. "It will be so great!" says the genius (and by "genius," I mean "idiot"). "People won't have to carry a phone AND a PDA. And when they open the meeting even on the calendar, it will have the phone number of the conference call right in it, so they'll be able to call in with one click!" Nice job genius. You just added a function, thus increasing the crappiness of the great phone by a factor of 4. You're so fired.

There are two problems with cramming functions into gadgets. The first problem is the reduction of focus. Every software developer knows that when you try to make a product do more and different things, the time and attention given to doing fewer and similar things is diluted. People lose track of what's really important because they are juggling more competing priorities. The second problem is that gadgets are (ideally) small. They have a number of things in precious quantities: power, physical dimension, buttons, screen pixels, connectors, memory. As one adds functions, they functions compete for these precious resources, stealing them from the original functions or driving up cost and size of the gadget. Usually both things happen: they other functions are all dilulted and starved, and the whole gadget is bulkier and uglier and costs more.

Up this point, I've been very vague and used theoretical examples. Let's now look at real examples, and see if this holds water in the real world.

Nokia 8800 phone (circa 1999): you've probably seen this one. It was super small, with a shiny (but fake) chrome finish. Super small, it had long battery life, great reception. It was a great phone. It was, without question, the best wireless phone I ever had. It did one thing, make phone calls, and it was barely crappy at all. Good.

Original Blackberry (circa 1998): everybody has the big Blackberries now. We'll get to those later. The original one was about 2x3x.75 inches. It had a little 8-line black and green LCD screen. It did almost nothing except send and receive email. Gosh, it was great at that. It had a tiny qwerty keyboard and a little thumbwheel. Good.

Palm Pilot (1995-present): the Palm Pilot is a general purpose gadget. But, in general, I would consider its primary function to be storing data and providing applications that allow mostly read-only access. It's hard to do a lot of input with a Palm. It's easy to run specialized program than manage lots of little records for reference: address book, calendar, and (my favorite) Robert Parker's wine database are some good examples. The great things about the original Palm that carries through to today (mostly) are: instant on (no booting), synchronizing with a much more powerful data management system (your computer), and UI paradigms that nearly all applications follow rather well. Good.

Digital Cameras: pick any one. Some stink, some are fabulous. My favorite one that qualifies as a gadget is the Minolta Dimage. It is incredibly small, has very few buttons, takes excellent quality pictures and turns on and is ready in barely over 1 second.

Nokia 3650 camera phone: Now we get into it. You've seen this phone; it has a huge color screen, and all the buttons arranged in a circle. Trial dialing. It's awful. Battery life: hah! And, a really bad, slow blurry camera. Oh, it's also a crappy PDA too.

Blackberry Nextel. This takes the blackberry email device, adds a phone to it, and also adds the Nextel walkie-talkie service. OK, the email capabilities are still great, which is something. But it's a horrible phone: hard to hear, and hard to dial on the tiny number keys on the left 1/3 of the keyboard. The killer is that the walkie-talkie stuff makes the battery go from full to zero in about 48 hours of idle time. Bad.

iPod. OK, the iPod is great. It's totally focused on one thing: playing music. Sure, it has the odd little extras like a read-only list of your address book, or the "breakout" game. But those are not serious attempts to replace other devices. I think it's telling that Apple did not try to cram a camera onto the iPod Photo. I just hope they don't try to cram a phone in there.