Thursday, June 12, 2003

The importance of good design

Here we have a delightful page on the state of the art gizmos that every proper geek wanted in 1983. (Via William Gibson).

From Motorola, the first commercial portable cellular phone to receive FCC approval. The DynaTAC 8000X, which weighs just 28 ounces, works on the new Advanced Mobile Phone Service that's being rolled out, and has an LED display, memory to store thirty "dialing locations," and enough battery life for 30 minutes of talk time and eight hours of standby. Retail price: $3,995.

Ah, yes. Nostalgia. The days when gizmos were really clunky, and really expensive, and only a small corps of hard core geeks knew they existed. These days, it is amazing how many quite cool and interesting gizmos can be bought for, say, $100. Of course, the number of people who lust for tech products (particularly from the younger generation) is much larger than it used to be, and the resultant economies of scales are part of the point.

Still, I wonder whether todays products will look as clunky as these when we look back from 20 years in the future. To some extent, I think the answer is yes, but I don't think to the same extent. I think the quality of design has improved with respect to technical products, at least in some quarters. Certainly it has with respect to mobile phones. (This is pretty much the entire explanation for the success of Nokia. They got their design right before anyone else did. Their phones have never been anything special from a technical perspective). With some other products, less so.

Particularly with desktop PCs, less so. This is one product where design remains something of a disaster. Interestingly enough, Gibson in another post discusses why the computer used by one of the characters in his most recent novel uses a Macintosh G4 Cube. Essentially this is one of the few desktop PCs ever to get the design right. We are now in an age where ordinary users don't actually need the extra CPU cycles given to them by Moore's law (thanks mainly to the fact that the main bottleneck for most applications is now net connection speed and not CPU speed) and therefore a computer several years old can still be used by most users if there is some good reason for them to do so. The G4 Cube is now an old product, but its users still love it. They do so to such an extent that its resale value is something similar to its original purchase price, even though it was discontinued quite some time ago. Given that PCs normally lose their value with ferocious speed, this is remarkable.

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