Simplicity has always been a favorite topic of mine, and in fact it was the subject of one of the original posts on this blog almost three years ago. Since then I’ve also discussed the effect of complexity on defects, and even individual simplicity. And regular readers know that I prefer simple visual solutions to complex software algorithms.
But, alas, my passion for extreme simplicity isn’t shared by everyone… which I guess explains why SAP makes money and why Apple has made some miscues in its past and is now taking a risk with the iPhone.
Today’s Wall Street Journal tells the story of Steve Jobs’ hatred of "the button." Any button. He shares my love of simplicity and probably takes it a few steps further. The iPhone doesn’t have a single button, and with initial iPhone sales disappointing a bit (despite the hype), some are wondering if it goes too far.
The new Apple cellphone famously does without the keypads that adorn its rivals. Instead, it offers a touch-sensing screen for making phone calls and tapping out emails. The resulting look is one of the sparest ever for Apple, a company known for minimalist gadgets. While many technology companies load their products up with buttons, Mr. Jobs treats them as blemishes that add complexity to electronics products and hinder their clean aesthetics.
This scrutiny of any projection that moves goes back deep into Apple’s history.
Buttons have long been a hot-button issue for Apple’s CEO. Mr. Jobs was adamant that the keyboard for the original Macintosh not include "up," "down," "right" and "left" keys that allow users to move the cursor around their computer screens.
The spirit of simplicity extends even to Apple retail stores. The elevator in Apple’s popular Tokyo store, for instance, has no floor buttons. It stops on every floor of the four-story building.
At an Apple event two years ago, Mr. Jobs mocked the complexity of traditional remote controls for consumer-electronics products. He showed an image comparing media center remotes that had more than 40 buttons each next to a new Apple remote control for playing movies and music on Macs. The Apple remote had just six buttons.
Years later, after Mr. Jobs returned to Apple and much of the personal-computing world was making the switch to more versatile multibutton mice… Mr. Jobs strongly rebuffed the idea, criticizing the multibutton mouse as "inelegant."
What a great vision! At least in my opinion. Which as I mentioned before doesn’t mirror that of some other customers.
The strategy worked, but he [user interface expert Bruce Tognazzini] adds that many users still craved cursor keys and other buttons missing from the original Mac. Just days after Mr. Jobs resigned from Apple in 1985, Mr. Tognazzini proposed a new keyboard that ended up nearly doubling the key count of the original Mac keyboard, earning it the code-name USS Enterprise for its girth. Customers snapped it up when it went on sale in 1987.
In 2000, Apple introduced the Power Mac G4 Cube, a computer that replaced the traditional mechanical power buttons of most computers with a touch-sensitive on/off switch that blended inconspicuously with the machine’s eye-catching plastic case. Unfortunately, the switch proved too sensitive for many users, who found it easy to accidentally turn the computer off with a casual stroke of the hand. Apple discontinued the G4 Cube a year later.
Apple finally relented two years ago and it began selling a multibutton mouse.
When the company introduced the iPod in late 2001, the most common calls to Apple’s technical support lines for a time were about how to turn the device, which lacked a clearly defined power button, off and on, says a former Apple executive.
The iPhone is following in that minimalist tradition with virtually no buttons… and I guess all buttons virtual. Who drove that design concept?
When asked on stage at a recent conference sponsored by The Wall Street Journal whether there was any debate internally about the decision to include a virtual keyboard with the iPhone instead of a physical one, Mr. Jobs had a suitably minimalist answer. "None," he said.
It’s good to be the boss. And minimalism and simplicity are great concepts.
But in the end it’s the customer that decides, and that’s what ultiimately matters.