Essays on Technology and Culture

Functional Constraints

The brilliant Matt Gemmell recently wrote about technological constraints and how they affect the devices we choose.

There are many factors to consider. Performance and power consumption. Size and weight. Noise and heat. Beauty, durability, and portability. Connectivity and upgradeability. Compatibility and of course cost… They’re all interrelated in various ways, forming a complex web of trade-offs.

There’s one constraint that Matt doesn’t touch on: what we can use it for. It’s an easy one to overlook, because so many of our devices can do so many things. Steve Jobs may have described the original iPhone, arguably the device that codified the modern “smartphone,” as being a phone, and iPod, and an “Internet communicator,” but really it’s a general purpose computing device that just happens to be able to make phone calls. At this point, the phone aspect of the smartphone is tertiary at best. The iPhone is functionally constrained by the software limitations Apple imposes on it, but there are ways around that. Elsewhere, Canonical’s taken the general purpose computing aspect of the smartphone far enough that they’re raising money to sell a phone you can hook to a monitor and keyboard and use as a desktop computer. I can only imagine the technological constraints the Ubuntu designers have to work into the product to allow that.

In a larger sense, this is the dividing line between Apple products and those of its competitors. When you buy an Apple product, there’s no question that you’re giving up certain features that are taken for granted on other platforms: internal expansion slots on desktops, RAM upgrades and replaceable batteries on laptops, and the ability to install software from (almost) anywhere you choose on your phone and tablet. By making the choice to buy an Apple product, you’re deciding that these features not important to you. It was certainly a factor I considered when I made the switch to Apple, as I was tired of fiddling in the guts of my computers from both a hardware and software standpoint.

The unwillingness of Microsoft to “compromise” on Windows 8 and their subsequent Surface tablet offerings has been their undoing. Stratechery’s analysis tablets and smartphones as “thin clients” touches briefly on the problem. Windows 8, by welding the traditional desktop interface to the touch-oriented Metro UI created a functional hybrid that fails at being both a compelling tablet and a compelling desktop. While a tablet may, eventually, become the one device for the average user, we’re not there yet, and half-steps like porting the “classic” Windows UI on to a touch device are only standing in the way. The form factor of tablets and a touch-based UI requires creating constraints in UI and in functionality. A device that tries to do everything in an input-limited environment will run into issues.

In a way, this brings me to Jake Knapp, who “can’t handle infinity in [his] pocket,” so he turned off most of the things that make his smartphone smart. It’s an extreme way of dealing with a real problem. It’s the same motivation that drives Harry Marks to his typewriter, or Jonathan Franzen to take a saw to his laptop’s Ethernet port. These self-imposed constraints, switching or modifying our hyper-flexible tools to become something we can limit and ground ourselves into using without the fear of something popping up and distracting us from the task at hand.

What worries me is that disabling features is a power user move. Only someone who knows how their device works can think to turn off the features that distract them. I wouldn’t expect my father to think of turning off Safari on his iPhone, but it also wouldn’t benefit him. The market for uni-tasking devices is small. I remember a few years back, pre iPad, how a novelist friend of mine was gushing over the AlphaSmart, a portable word processor built for typing and nothing else. I wonder how well it sells. It’s not easy to market something with limited functionality to a gadget-hungry public, and that includes nerds and normals, with the proposition that it’s good for only one thing. The only exception may be e-readers, and tablets may already be subsuming that market.

Either users are going to adapt to the growing amount of functionality in their devices, or the market will shift towards devices that offer less features as users seek to become less overwhelmed. I expect it will be the former, rather than the latter. As stable as the market appears, it’s still early days. We don’t know where these devices will go, and whether they will adapt to us, or us to them. The cynic in me expects the status quo: users overwhelmed by functionality and a subset of power users who drop out. I hope I’m proven wrong.