In The Tech Industry, Complex Is A Polite Word For Fat

Ever since I got an iPad, I've been eager for the update to the upgrade to the iOS4 operating system that premiered on the iPhone months ago. The ease of use of the iPad erodes, grain by grain, with each app that you add to it, as long as you're forced to keep sweeping across page after page of apps. Organizing apps into functional groups across pages is a tedious process. After a while, you really feel the need for folders to organize your apps more effectively.

Imagine my disappointment, therefore, when iTunes froze as soon as I launched it. It was the start of yet another chapter in the story of my hate-hate relationship with iTunes, because of its unstoppable bloat and accompanying seizures. With every major update, iTunes grows another layer of fat, causing more frequent electronic coronaries when it needs to run (or waddle) through its paces. I can't say I was surprised that iTunes froze, forcing me to reinstall it (the software equivalent of sending someone to fat camp?) before I could get it working again.

Here, from a single company, on a single desktop, is the history of the tech industry's problems with complexity. A device that is consummately simple to use, the iPad, is handcuffed, like a slender Sidney Poitier to a morbidly obese Tony Curtis, to iTunes. As Apple keeps jamming more of its business plan, in the form of new features (Genius, Ping, etc.) and new content (anything that could be described as "released" or "published"), iTunes swells to ever-increasing levels of complexity. 

This is a familiar tale, in which, like Greek tragedy, the protagonists strengths also become the source of unexpected problems. In the technology industry, invention has proceeded at an astounding clip because it doesn't have to deal with the same number of physical laws as other forms of research and development. Sure, you have to worry about physical limitations such as the speed of light, or mechanical obstacles such as the maximum speed the head in a hard disk can access a sector, but those are a lot less onerous than the deep mysteries of organic chemistry that govern the pharmaceuticals industry. Software development is a lot cheaper than building a new model car, too.

Inventors in the technology industry seized this opportunity to build things very, very quickly. Feeling the competitors snapping at their heels, they raced ahead even faster. Based on the assumption that the value of a piece of technology was directly proportional to the number of its capabilities, software in particular succumbed to Swiss Army Knife Syndrome. Why peddle a mere knife, when you can sell a knife/fork/spoon/screwdriver/sander/flashlight/stapler/crowbar/razor?

The industry has matured to the point where, thankfully, a lot of professionals shake their heads at this simplistic formula, the understandable but regrettable result of the industry's youthful exuberance. They've seen customers embrace the opposite of this complexity, such as the apps on smartphones and tablet devices. I'm not disappointed that Photoshop Express on the iPad doesn't do everything that Photoshop can. I'm delighted. Apps on the iPhone, iPad, and similar devices demonstrate that you can encapsulate a lot of useful functionality, tailored to a specific use case, in a neat little package. I talk to tech vendors every day, and believe me, the message is not lost on them.

In fact, the tech industry is in the thick of a multifront war on complexity. Customers can observe some of these campaigns directly, such as in the increased emphasis on UX. (Which is another way of saying, "An increased emphasis on tearing out the UX kudzu and re-planting.) Some efforts are happening inside tech companies, such as the adoption of the incredibly aptly named Agile and Lean methodologies. And some are yet to be fully appreciated, such as the ways SaaS compels simplification.

I'll be writing about some of these campaigns against complexity in future blog posts. I'll also move away from discussions about Apple because the rest of the tech industry can learn only a limited amount from that particular example. (Sadly, there's no chance of building an ERP system that has the sleek design and less than a dozen interface points of the iPod.) Apple gets enough press, so let's talk about other companies that have succeeded in the war on complexity.