The philosophy of design

One of the interesting things about the reaction to the press release posted on various tech sites yesterday was the way in which it revealed the massive gap between those who are focused on technological style and those who are focused on technological substance.  Now, I am in awe of Steve Jobs’s marketing abilities and very much admire his ability to sell slick, dumbed-down products to the lowest common denominator while simultaneously convincing the buyers that they are somehow savvy and superior.  I despise Windows far more than most, but I would rather use DOS than any Macintosh operating system ever released.  I haven’t been willing to use any of Mr. Jobs’s very pretty, very popular products since I sold my original Macintosh, bought a 386/25, stuck what was then a very high-end 1024×768, 256-color board in it and never looked back.  As a libertarian, I despise technological fascism as much, possibly more, than the political variant.  After all, as has been pointed out many times before, the Apple “1984” ad is probably one of the most ironic in history.

What few people know is that about twenty years ago, in between my sophmore and junior year of college, I designed a piece of hardware that was even more outrageous.  It was a PC sound board that put out two 16-bit, 44 KHz stereo channels and supported 16 simultaneous sounds… back when AdLib still ruled the PC sound waves about six months after the original mono 8-bit Soundblaster was released.  We actually got it working, but I couldn’t convince the company for which I was interning that there was a market for such outrageously high-end sound.  I should have dropped out of college and started selling my sound card, but back then I was still prone to doing things the way everyone was supposed to, like finishing college instead of dropping out to sell sound cards for games.

Anyhow, since introducing the Macintosh, the Apple method has always relied upon limiting your options and controlling your behavior while loudly declaring that they are doing precisely the opposite.  The reason Apples have been inferior game machines since 1983 despite the one-time popularity of the Apple II as a gaming computer – I still have my //e – is that the game industry is full of people who like to be at the forefront of technological development and aren’t willing to put up with someone telling them that you will be stuck with X video card and Y amount of memory whether you like it or not.

People often get so caught up in the hype of Apple that they fail to see the inferior utility behind the sleek, sophisticated, and superficial design.  For example, I think the iPhone would make for a lovely ebook reader, except that it turns out to be far more of a pain to sweep a finger to turn every electronic page than it is  to simply click a button on a Treo.   And, of course, the inability to insert an SD card is the reason I turned down a free iPhone when my service provider tried to give me one last year.  The truth is that Apple products have usually been tailored for technological retards.  That’s not a bad sales strategy since there will always be more techno-retards than performance junkies and strictly limiting your users’ options is a great way to reduce your technical support problems.  But I wholeheartedly disagree with the concept of intentionally limiting user flexibility; perhaps many people don’t mind not being able to simply transfer data from their computer to their phone without going through the submissive electronic ritual required by Apple, but it was a deal-breaker for me.

As for the mice, well, I quite look forward to seeing someone set up two neophytes with two examples of opposing design philosophies, one multi-touch and one multi-button.  It doesn’t matter if it’s Calc, Photoshop, or Call of Duty, but I would bet that whoever is using multi-button will absolutely smoke the person using multi-touch.  Ultimately, I wouldn’t be surprised if some combination of the two approaches won out; a flexible multi-touch approach that lets you dynamically determine the “size” of your buttons, although there’s still the tactile problem to address.  Now, speed isn’t everything for everyone, and certainly there will be those who prefer the look of multi-touch to the power and flexibility of multi-button.

But for those who think speed is everything – and you know who you are – the idea of using a buttonless touch mouse looks as ridiculous as an 18-button mouse apparently looks to those who don’t believe they need more than one or two buttons.