Dec 272010
Flip mino HD
Image by gaspartorriero via Flickr

An end, please, to the gadget features race

WHY is it so many manufacturers cannot leave well alone?

They go to great pains to produce exquisite pieces of technology. Then too often, instead of merely honing the rough edges away to perfection, they spoil everything by adding unnecessary bells and whistles and unwarranted girth. In the pursuit of sales, they seem to feel they must continually add further features to keep jaded customers coming back for more. It is as if consumers can’t be trusted to respect the product for what the designers originally intended.

Occasionally, they get it right. When the little Flip Mino camcorder came out a couple of years ago, your correspondent (not an instinctive early adopter) just knew it was something he had to have. What impressed him about the design was not simply the gadget’s diminutive proportions and low price, but the way the developers had so ruthlessly resisted all the marketing pressure to add further features—and had single-mindedly maintained the design’s clarity of purpose. The Flip had one function, and one only—to fit in a shirt-pocket ready to be flipped out in a trice for those fleeting video moments. This it did brilliantly. Though the Flip’s performance has kept pace with technical improvements, subsequent versions have steadfastly maintained the designer’s original concept.

Such rigorous lack of feature-creep is rare. Look at what has happened to netbooks—those once-minimalist laptop computers for doing basic online chores while on the hoof. Though palmtop computers and sub-notebooks had been around for decades, a Taiwanese firm called Asus introduced the world to netbooks in 2007 with its ground-breaking Eee PC. The two-pound device had a seven-inch screen, no optical drive or hard drive, and occupied half the space of a typical notebook computer of the day. It had all the essentials (and no unnecessary extras) for doing the job, and could be slipped into a briefcase, handbag or raincoat pocket and hardly noticed.

Seeing a good thing, rival makers rushed in with me-too versions—each purporting to offer improvements. The original keyboard was only 85% as wide as a full-sized one. Many people thought that just fine, especially as it offered the luxury of a seven-inch screen. For the past 20 years, your itinerant correspondent has cheerfully used palmtops with 62% keyboards and six-inch screens to check his e-mail, surf the web and file stories from odd places. The me-toos, nevertheless, deemed 85% unusable and increased it to 92%.

With the increase in keyboard width came an increase in the netbook’s screen size, room for a fairly hefty hard-drive, additional ports, a bigger battery—and yet more weight. Today’s netbooks are now the size of low-end laptops, with up to 12-inch screens, 160 gigabyte drives, one or two gigabytes of random-access memory, a video camera, and cellular as well as wireless transceivers. As a result, they now weigh well over three pounds and need a padded case to lug them around. The original concept has been lost in a blizzard of feature-creep.

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