Monday, July 12, 2010

If It Works, It's Obsolete

The recent antenna problem that seems to be plaguing the new Apple iPhone 4 is certainly not an isolated case. It seems that more and more high tech products develop major flaws right out of the box. We have cars that suddenly accelerate, computers that loose your data, and television sets, once the very paragon of reliability, now have pictures that freeze and look like high tech jig-saw puzzles. I joke with my wife when she laments all the issues with her computer, phone or the TV remote. I just suggest to her that she needs to lower her expectations.

Seriously, it seems to me that this problem of reliability is getting worse and I think I know why.

Perhaps the leading cause of these problems is the complexity of even the simplest of devices. Digital controls and embedded software, once only found in the components of the likes of the Space Shuttle, today find their way into your refrigerator, toaster and coffee maker. Often the features that are made possible by these complex controls are helpful, but too often the Swiss Army Knife approach to adding features can lead to problems. It is one thing to have a refrigerator that knows when to defrost itself. It is another thing to have it automatically contact the store and order a new bottle of mustard when the one on the second shelf is half empty. The problem comes when the mustard ordering feature problem also shuts down the entire refrigerator.

Perhaps more problematic is the fierce competition and rush to get products to market. It seems that the concept of lab and field testing of products before selling them is a novel concept for many. Instead of setting up a panel of consumers to test and evaluate products, many companies now release the product and let those who purchase the product find the problems. So Steve Jobs is able to identify his phone’s propensity to drop calls now that consumers are actually trying to use it. The result of that research will no doubt be integrated into version 2.0 of the iPhone but the people who bought the first model are left holding the bag …or the phone.

For sure, many problems can be fixed with a new software download and as anyone who uses a computer or smart phone knows this happens all the time. Because of this “we can fix it in version 2” mentality, early adopters must be very careful.

A few years ago I came across a quote by Marshall McLuhan that I think sums it up: "If it works, it's obsolete."

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