If you pan out like an angelic Walt Mossberg to look down from the clouds at humanity’s progress for the past 20 years, you’ll see cumbersome connections with technology. Each device — laptop, cell phone, television set — has a few common interface standards (say, most laptop screens tilt backward and use a QWERTY keyboard) but the real story is chaotic complexity. Gadget designs are all over the place. Sure, we have a common computer mouse, but good luck turning on the TV in your neighbor’s home or setting an alarm clock in a strange hotel room. Here’s a test: visualize where the “play” button is on your own home stereo. We bet you don’t know.
The disincentive of differentiation
Why are common interface standards so absent? Call it differentiation. First, technology moves quickly and devices keep changing; smart phones barely existing 5 years ago, and designers are still tweaking where buttons go on touch screens. Second, manufacturers continue adding “feature creep,” little tweaks to each device to try to defend margins. We didn’t ask for a video camera in our iPod Nano, but we got one. And third, the competitive marketplace is good for invention but not so fine for industrial standards. If your company’s product works similar to others then competitors can easily mimic you and steal your customers; it is better, for profits, to build a unique widget, sell the hell out of it, and block other companies from plugging in.
Consumers gain innovation but lose sanity in this process. The competitive market fails in improving consistent interface design. Incumbents with market share and installed customer bases (think Microsoft Windows systems on Dell laptops) have little incentive to change how you really interact with their devices; improving user interface would require huge hardware shifts, might make old products obsolete, and free you up to really shop around. And consumers also drive the fragmentation by buying new gizmos with new looks and feels, because shiny feels good, even if it means new shiny that doesn’t match the 20 other tools you have at home.
Darryl Ohrt suggests Clayton Miller may get bought out by Apple or Microsoft for his 10-fingered genius. We hope so, but alas, we fear the invisible hand of the free market has no need for 10 fingers.