Essays on Technology and Culture

Inertia, and Why We Hate Technological Change

Those of us who think a lot about the technology we use become very resistant to change. Call it inertia. We know our operating system of choice, our apps of choice, our hardware of choice, and damned if we’re going to try something else because we know this and we don’t want to learn again. People who don’t put a whole lot of thought into technology have the same symptoms. Why should they switch, if the thing they’re using works? All they care about is whether they can do what they want to do. These two groups exist on a spectrum that twists around and is joined at the ends like a Möbius strip—dyed-in-the-wool, neck bearded Open Source enthusiasts sitting back to back with grumpy corporate CTOs on decade-old Windows XP boxes, neither one knowing the other sits next to them. All they see is the shades of gray fading off in front of them.

A radical change in an established technology will be immediately polarizing to anyone deep in the technology world. The reactions to the original Mac and the reactions to Windows 8 are the same sentiment expressed by different populations, all boiling down to “It’s new, it’s different, and I’d need new software to use it.” However, if you’re wondering why sales of iPhones and iPads have gone through the roof, while the Mac’s market share has grown much more slowly, consider this: While the smartphone and the tablet were not new, per se, the iPhone and iPad were the first of these devices that were designed for the common user, not a geek, or a sales guy who needed e-mail on the road. For all intents and purposes, the iPhone and iPad invented the smartphone and tablet spaces, though “re-invented” is more accurate from a technology standpoint. They’re so far removed from the Palm Treo and Windows for Pen Computing tablets as to be a new thing entirely—and even then, they had grumpy detractors.

Microsoft’s use of a traditional desktop UI on smartphones and tablets in the early 2000s may well have been guided by the idea that a user would already be familiar with it from their PC. “A user already knows to click the Start button,” someone at Microsoft thought, “so they’ll know to do that on Windows CE.” This was true, but it ignored the possibility that there was a better way. I’d love to see the design process behind the Windows CE interface, and if anyone suggested a PalmOS like grid of icons, or some other, new, UI convention. It wouldn’t necessarily be better, either because new UIs aren’t always better, or because the hardware couldn’t make it work—though more likely through inertia—but it would be nice to know someone tried.

Institutional inertia is simply user inertia, writ large. In a technology company, you (with luck) have people using the product they create. There’s a term for this: “eating your own dog food.” The benefit of eating your own dog food is that you can find ways to improve it by scratching your own itches. [1] This, of course, assumes the organizational structure around the product actually allows for that sort of thing, something you’ll see more of in young, small companies than in big ones with layers of management, [2] but this not always the case. It’s the ones furthest from the metal, as it were, who react to changes with rancor, and those people can be inside the company as well as outside.

People complain every time Facebook changes its interface. They complain when Apple changes the iTunes UI. Every change breaks somebody’s workflow, even if it’s a bugfix. It’s psychology, and the further you go towards the joint on the Möbius strip, the more adamant you’ll be that things stay the same. Meanwhile, in the creamy middle, there’s a bunch of people who, perhaps with skepticism, evaluate what’s new, and make the jump. Some even go back if they find they made the wrong choice It may take more goading than others, but everyone who isn’t on the extremes can at least adapt to something different when they need to, or find something that truly is better. Life in the middle is much more interesting than on the extremes of stubborn technological inertia, but for many people that’s exactly why they stick where they are.

  1. Yes, the metaphor goes completely bonkers here. Sorry.  ↩

  2. c.f. The Peter Principle and The Dilbert Principle.  ↩