The Year’s Worst Tech Trend: Complexity

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Dec. 29 2011 6:23 PM

2011 Was a Terrible Year for Tech

All our devices got more complicated. And they won’t get simpler anytime soon.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

If you read tech criticism often, there’s a good chance that you’ve come upon a staple of the form that I like to call the “mommy dearest” review. Your middle-aged tech journalist—the sort of fellow who could spend hours telling you about the newest developments in wireless routers—is assessing a gadget like the Kindle or the iPad, a device meant to appeal to non-techies. He begins by praising the gadget’s intuitive interface and its easy setup process, but eventually he finds that mere description doesn’t adequately convey the product’s momentous simplicity. That’s when he drops the mom bomb: This thing is so easy that even my mom could use it.

I’m pretty sure I’ve never written a mommy dearest review, but I’ve come close (sorry, Dad!), and I understand the impulse. People who write about technology for a living are fundamentally different from those who don’t, and we know it: We’re obsessed with gadgets, and we’re prepared to invest time learning complicated things if the payoff looks grand. But we also know that the real audience for tech products is non-techies—or normals, as they’re called in the business—and we’re instantly taken by anything that promises to demystify tech for those users. That’s why tech journalists love Apple, and why the last half-decade has been such an exciting time in the business. Over the last few years, the industry finally started paying attention to normals: With the advent of smartphones, tablets, and centralized app and media stores, it looked like computers would finally become easy enough for every tech reviewer’s mom to use.

But then, this year, all that simplicity was tossed out the window. It was a terrible year for tech. In 2011 nearly every gadget or service that I use on a regular basis picked up new features that made it more frustrating to deal with. Everywhere I looked, I saw feature creep, platform wars, competing media standards, and increasingly chaotic user interfaces. Complexity appeared in places where I’ve come to expect it—like Facebook, which, as usual, added a blizzard of overlapping, sometimes secret features—but also in longtime havens for normals, like the Mac operating system. In Lion, Apple’s latest OS, there are so many ways to download and launch apps—not to mention a new, full-screen app interface that renders everything you thought you knew about how to get around your Mac pretty much useless, and introduces a host of inconsistent swipe gestures—that even if you dare to install it, you’d be wise to ignore everything new.

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But it’s not just that individual products got more difficult to use; in 2011 the entire tech ecosystem descended toward entropy. Devices and services had a harder time playing together, and simply choosing what to use became an occasion for a flowchart. Some of the simplest tech questions—How should I send a text message to a friend? Which video phone service should I use?—are now hopelessly fraught.

Say you’re looking to watch movies and TV shows online. Should you subscribe to Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus, cable, satellite, or something else altogether? The correct answer is: It depends. There are now so many variables that affect this simple decision—How much TV do you watch? Do you prefer old stuff or new stuff? Are there specific shows you’re into? Do you like live TV?—that it could take you a couple hours of research to arrive at your answer. Worse, however deeply you research the question, you’re unlikely to find everything you want from a single service. In the tech industry today, trade-offs rule. There are lots of almost-great ways to get stuff you want, but perfection is elusive. And it will remain that way for several years, at least.

The main problem is that the tech business is in a period of transition between yesterday’s PCs and tomorrow’s mobile machines. The old business was dominated by a single company, Microsoft, which could decide carte blanche how millions of people’s computers would change every year. But no single company has yet claimed the post-PC era, and for the foreseeable future, new devices will remain under the sway of four or five gargantuan firms (Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft). Because these companies have different visions and business interests for the future, they’re all creating similar but incompatible technologies. In 2011 both Apple and Facebook released BlackBerry-like messaging services that are meant to replace traditional SMS text-messaging—but neither can talk to the other. In the same vein, you can’t use Apple’s Facetime to video chat with someone on Skype (now owned by Microsoft) or Android, and you can’t invite someone on Facebook to your Google+ Hangout.

The multi-device world requires constant management and coordination: Today lots of people—even non-techies—regularly deal with three or four main gadgets. But each of these devices is an island; the cell number you have in an archived work e-mail isn’t necessarily available on your phone when you need it. Sure, there are apps (like Dropbox) that claim to ensure all your data is available from your work computer, your personal laptop, your smartphone, and maybe your tablet, but the very fact that you’ve got to install an add-on suggests the depth of the problem.

Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon are all working on ways to allow me to seamlessly switch from device to device, but, again, their competing interests prevent them from creating something that just works everywhere. This year Apple unveiled iCloud, a way to keep your data automatically synced between all your services—but of course it won’t sync anything you do on your Android phone. I love the way that Google’s Chrome Web browser remembers everything that I do on every computer: When I save a bookmark or add an extension to Chrome on my laptop, my desktop instantly gets the same info. But the iPhone, iPad, Windows Phone, and Kindle Fire don’t run Chrome, so it’s no help there.

I suspect there’s a big opportunity, in 2012 and beyond, for startups that attempt to solve this problem. The success of Dropbox proved that people need a simple way to force compatibility between their devices, but I’m envisioning something more than just making sure your files are everywhere. I’d like a service that acts as a concierge between all my competing devices and services: Why should I have different Lists and Circles in Facebook and Google+? I shouldn’t; someone should come up with a way to keep them in sync.

Yet for a host of technical reasons, it will be difficult for startups to solve the complexity problem. This is something that the marketplace will address over the long run: As one mobile platform wins out, and one media service gains dominance, eventually it will become easier to choose the best way to send messages, watch videos, and keep things synced between your gadgets. But Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft are locked in a battle for the ages. None of them is going to give up soon, and it might be many years before we see a clear winner. Until then, brace yourself.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.