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By Jack Ganssle

Too Much Cool

Published 3/14/2003

I used to date an architect. A very artistic nature complemented her intellectual brilliance. Art mostly eludes me; as an engineer I think mostly about raw functionality: is it fast enough? Does it consume too much power? Are all of the features working properly? So it was an education to view the world through her perspective. A building is functional: it provides shelter, heat and light. But is it beautiful? Does it gracefully merge into the surrounding cityscape?

She often commented about electronic products, and how some evolved from merely functional things to objects of beauty. She was fascinated by the stunning marriage of form and function embodied in the Macintosh. Compared to the stark plastic towers housing Wintel machines, Apple has indeed created a thing of beauty.

Not long ago bare functionality was enough to sell consumer products. Later form became equally important. Today there's a surprising (to me) business in cell phone snap-on covers. My Spock-ish engineer's brain can discern no benefit from these accessories, yet they are undeniably hot items.

Today cell phones are pretty much all the same. Maybe a cool design is the only tool vendors have to differentiate their products. So I figured the pendulum, which once rested entirely in the functionality camp, would stop its swing at the current level of great features and a pretty shape, with a few extra features tossed in to grab consumer's cash.

Maybe not. The pendulum continues to swing, into a new arena where cool is more important than functionality.

Now some phones are so small that people with normal-sized fingers have trouble pressing buttons. Small is cool. but at what cost?

A New York Times article (http://nytimes.com/2003/03/10/technology/10PHON.html?8hpib) reveals even more tradeoffs made in the pursuit of "cool". Antennas buried inside the phone give a sleek look. but yield more dropped calls and less clarity on the rest. Silly features like built-in camera that chase the dream of "cool" suck power too rapidly, draining batteries much faster than phones a year or two less advanced.

Extra features also result in buggier code and more customer frustration. I used to have a cell phone that had 100 different functions, ranging from a handful of important setup commands to frivolous games. A group of developers obviously spent a lot of time implementing all of those capabilities. But the phone itself was horribly unreliable and buggy, dropping calls, not acquiring signals properly, and generally driving me batty with frustration. It's primary feature - making calls - wasn't reliable. The developers focused too much on the frills and not enough on the basics.

Yet it is possible to combine cool and function. Apple is probably one of the great engineering companies extant. Their iPod is a wonderful product, an MP3 player which is a thing of beauty, with great battery life and almost infinite capacity to store tunes. It's hard to imagine a better music machine; my hat is off to Apple's engineers and their industrial designers. I've yet to succumb to the siren call of cool that explodes from the iPod, but it's near the top of my wish list.

In a beery discussion one evening at an Embedded Systems Conference, a developer from a major consumer electronics company confided that features and cool are far more important to them than reliability. He admitted that their products were rife with firmware bugs, but claimed they were merely responding to consumer demands for more features faster. Cool sells. When was the last time you saw "and, it actually works like we claim" plastered over an ad for a new electronic gadget?

Cool features and an elegant look are, well, cool. Seductive. They make us instinctively reach for our wallets. But when cool comes at a substantial cost in performance, I think we're making the wrong tradeoff. A built-in camera is indeed at least sort of cool. But don't compromise the ability of the device to function like a really great phone. I think too many of the alleged "consumer demands" are really the product of some 23 year old marketing weenie's late night brainstorm. Or maybe nightmare.