Customers Love "Boring" Tech Products

Moneybox
A blog about business and economics.
Sept. 18 2012 11:39 AM

Why Customers Love Boring Tech Products

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SAN FRANCISCO, CA - SEPTEMBER 12: An attendee looks at the new iPhone 5 during an Apple special event at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on September 12, 2012 in San Francisco, California.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

There's a lot of commentary out there drawing a contrast between tech pundits' tendency to denounce the iPhone 5 as "boring" and the basic reality that Apple seems to be selling them like hotcakes.

This is pretty simple economics and business strategy if you ask me, with people only getting a little confused because talking a lot about innovation is the hot thing to do right now. Think back to when the original iPhone was released and you'll recall that absolutely nobody thought it was boring. What the people who didn't think it was amazing thought was that it was terrible. It was a ton of money to spend on a phone, it was only available on one carrier, and you had to type on glass touchscreen. Nobody denied that it did some things that no other product did, but there were serious persistent doubts about whether or not a person would really want a product that had those capabilities.

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That's how it goes with a non-boring disruptive innovation. You're presenting something genuinely new to the marketplace. People naturally look at it and compare it to things that aren't new, and compared to them it looks too expensive too non-functional or both. And these qualities really hurt sales. Lots of people who are happy to concede that it's an impressive display of technical skill still think they don't need or want one.

Today smartphones are boring. Lots of people already have a multi-touch smartphone from Apple. Even more people have an Android-powered multi-touch smartphone. The folks who don't have a multi-touch smartphone are generally either old, or else they're worried about the high price of mobile data plans. But nobody doubts that a multi-touch smartphone is something a normal person would want to have. Nobody thinks it's a crazy extravagance or just something for geeks. So it means that when you come out with a new one that's good, whether it's the iPhone 5 or the Galaxy III there's a huge market you can sell into. Give the world a genuinely exciting, genuinely innovative product and most people will shrug their shoulders and keep on keeping on. Which is exactly why innovation is difficult. You're trying to think of a product that people don't think they want to buy but is nonetheless compelling enough that some people buy it and you can get off the ground.

"A smartphone that's like this other smartphone that's already out there but it's faster and lighter" really is boring but that's what people are looking for. Something that's directly comparable to things they already own and use, but clearly superior.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.