Tech Upgrades: Capitalism In Action

As I set up a iPad Mini for my inlaws (who refuse to use a bank machine, so this should be interesting), I am struck by the constant change in tech. You see, with the new machine came time to install iOS 7, whereas our machines have been going along quite nicely on v6. Not only is the display completely changed, but much of the internals have been ‘tweaked’.

Apart from a few frustrating minutes with the similiar-but-slightly-different changes inside, the changeover went well – but it did make me wonder why we change so often?

  • Some change IS necessary. Before USB, connectors came in a variety of sizes (RS232, DB9, and so forth) and connecting a device meant matching the plugs you needed on the devices with the sockets you had on your computer – or buying interfaces. USB made connectivity simpler, so the change was worthwhile. Go back far enough to when early cars put their controls any where they wanted, and you see the benefit of progress towards standardization.
  • Change was often bad. 200 years ago a great deal of change was bad. Getting old, losing family members, costs rising, these were some of the main features of change (even arguing that children born were examples of good changes are mitigated by the extra effort in raising/feeding/training a child). And while some change was good for many (revolutions for the non-ruling classes providing some freedoms for example), in many cases change was an added burden in life.
  • Yet change can be good. Confusingly, we seem built for change. Do more walking or heavy lifting, and your muscles grow. Learn something new, and the brain likewise gets exercise and new growth, potentially protecting ourselves against diseases like Alzheimer’s in the future. In this, the body seems to have this innate need for change to keep itself active and healthy.
  • Change is often made for the wrong reasons. iOS7 looks now like Android and Windows Phone – coincidence? All that development time and effort into sculptured and 3D GUIs is thrown out with the change to ‘flat’ design in 7. I actually had a potential client intimate she’d buy my products if they looked iOS7-like – forget about how they work, or the price, or the quality, she just wanted ‘new’.
  • Change can be outright managed wrong. In this, Apple is a refreshing exception. Part of their success has been because they see change more holistically than others. Want a desktop computer? Why not build it as one monolithic device and minimize the clutter (iMac)? How about music? Let’s make a device that just plays music well (iPod). And so on. In contrast, many device interfaces appear to be barely thought out at all. I recently used a DVD player that put the Stop button where the Play button is traditionally (rewind/play/fast forward, all in a row). Since conceptually it didn’t improve things, you’re left wondering why they went against a standard that works? It may not be a coincidence I found the player on sale…
  • Change fights for and against our instincts. As that example shows, people want new. Yet we hate learning new. What gives? Scientists have done studies in supermarkets where a larger choice of products (say, 25 flavors of jam) resulted in fewer sales than a smaller number. We have difficulty choosing when there are many choices – which might help explain why the choices implied in change (old versus new) are unpleasant.
  • We pick change although we hate it. To contrast to the previous study, they’ve done tests where people will pick overwhelmingly the items that are more feature-rich. The result is confusing: We get overwhelmed by more choices (potential changes), yet we seem hardwired to see these increased choices as ‘better’.

Ultimately, much of change is for the bottom line. Viewed from the money perspective, change makes sense: iOS7 looking like Google gives fewer reasons for new/old/potential customers to go to the competition. Adding new features locks in clients who find it harder to move away (who wants to learn Linux in this day and age instead of Windows, even though it is free?) Planned obsolescence means people are herded into spending money earlier than they really need to. For a business, change is the driving force behind sales, be it this year’s model of car, the ‘latest’ trend in tech, seasonal fashions, and so forth.

So is change good or bad? I like new devices, but I don’t like being forced to use them when someone else decides its time. Genuinely new features are interesting, but at what cost? If you feel the same, then it’s easy to be ambivalent about change.

But one thing is for sure – change is benefiting the wrong people many times, and in this economy, I think there’s a real money-making potential for people to be offered a choice for less change. Offer a device that doesn’t upgrade wildly every year, and doesn’t need minor changes to make it ‘fresh’. One example is the Jitterbug no-frills phone. Since 2006 it’s looked roughly the same. Even though it lacks many of the features many want for a phone today, it still sells. The market is open for devices like this that can be stripped down to the minimal interface.

People will always want the latest and greatest, and companies will continue to provide that. However, I believe, like the Jitterbug, there is a market for the rarely-changing out there. When it matters, we adapt to changes. But when it doesn’t, why bother us? After all, who hasn’t sat behind the wheel of a new car and said “why is it so different” instead of (non sarcastically) “great – lots of new things to get used to”? Once companies can justify a business model of fewer unnecessary changes, we might have a new (old?) way of buying products…

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