Monday, January 03, 2011

In Praise of Single Use Devices

There's an old marketing joke about the guy who went into the corporate office of the shampoo company and said "I can double your business with one word." That word? "Repeat."

Very related to this story has to be the first guy who decided that any device with a computer chip in it has to come with a game. Cell phones, calculators, MP3 players, what device of sufficient computing power these days does not have some sort of game? Even the early ipods had some sort of solitaire in them if I recall, as well as this "Name that tune" game that was actually pretty innovative since if use your own music.

Stop to think about it for a second. Why? Why does your phone need to play Blackjack?

The answer is simple - it's so that when you don't need to use your phone, you will still want to use your phone. "I'm bored. Hey, I know, my phone plays Solitaire, I'll do that."

Never forget that this is an invention intended to benefit the producer of the device, not the consumer. If there are two phones on the market, one of them does 3 things and one of them does 4 things, which one will most customers go for? Why, the one that does 4 things of course.

Well as I sit here with my new Kindle in hand, I'm having something of a Luddite moment. There's value in single use devices. Let's go back to that very first example, your stupid phone that still managed to play Blackjack on that tiny keypad. That moment when you said to yourself "Nobody's calling me, I don't have anyone to call...but my phone plays Blackjack, I'll do that." Imagine that the phone didn't play blackjack. What would you do? How about SOMETHING THAT DOESN'T INVOLVE YOUR PHONE? Read a book. Exercise. Go visit someone. Clip your fingernails. There's got to be 1000 things you could do besides play that game, but because someone put that game in your hand, you will play it.

I have a Kindle, not an iPad. Most people agree right now, at least from a distance, that multi-use devices like iPad will destroy single-use devices like Kindle. Why not, after all? Why get a device that does one thing when you can get a device that does 100 things? Well, because that device does 100 things, really.

In the week I've had my Kindle I've already finished one book (The Princess Bride), am half way through another (A Wrinkle In Time, which I am scanning to see whether my 8yr old is ready for it), and have made a dent in 4 others. I carry it with me, and whenever I have a moment I read.

If I had an iPad, what would I have done in that time? Yes, iPad has an ebook reader. Would I have used it? Of course not, and we all know it. I would have played Angry Birds every chance I got. New levels! New levels!! There are new Angry Bird Levels!!!

When a device only does one thing, you come to appreciate the quality of doing that thing. The Kindle could be a better reader, on a number of fronts. I'd like a light, but not at the expense of that crisp contrast it has. I'd like better text-to-speech, and better page turning. But will either of those make me say "Oh, well, see, the iPad is better, then." Nope, because I know that the iPad is too much in the wrong direction. The Kindle wants to do one thing better than anybody else. The iPad wants to do everything good enough. Sometimes everything is too much.