Lightning Good Design

by Colin Berkshire

Colin Here. I admit it: I am a fan of Apple products. I carry an iPhone and an iPad with me most of the time. A year ago I switched from Windows to an iMac (and I just love it!)

I have always said that I choose Apple because I love good design. My experience has been that Apple stuff works reliably, simply, and is just a smart choice.

But what is good design?

Apple just announced the new iPhone 5. One of the major new features is that it uses a new docking connector with a proprietary cable. I keep asking myself why they did that? Is it good design?

I can’t think of a single reason why a proprietary cable and connector is good for the consumer. Choosing a USB Micro-D connector would have met European regulations requiring that all phones use a common charging cable. It would have provided universal compatibility.

Instead, I am required to carry a special cable for my Apple devices. If I lose the cable I can’t use it, or even charge it.

So what extra added value do I get from the proprietary cable? I have been pondering this and cannot think of a single benefit. With WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0 I can’t think of what magic this incompatible cable might bring to my world. I can print, play music, stream video, and download via WiFi.

This new proprietary cable is not good design. It is terrible design. When you reduce compatibility, offer no new functionality, and reduce convenience you have not improved the world.

I believe that proprietary-thinking hurts companies, consumers, and the industry. We have seen this over and over in history. And, no industry has seen this more than telecom.

Proprietary VOIP protocols do have the ability to lock people in. Skype people can only use Skype. FaceTime users can only talk on Apple products. But fragmenting intercommunication hurts consumers.

I have pondered whether Skype is better off with a closed protocol than an open one. The 100-IQ person probably has the knee-jerk reaction that it prevents people from leaving Skype and captures them. But my experience is that people aren’t very captured. Those who don’t wish to use Skype just use FaceTime or VOIP. Has Skype really captured anybody? I really don’t think so.

History has shown that with open protocols there is still a natural human tendency to coalesce on trusted brands. Dell, HP, Acer and the few other major brands have coalesced with the otherwise generic Windows-PC environment.

So I challenge proprietary thinking. I am highly dubious that it provides a meaningful lock-in of customers. In the end, I think proprietary interfaces are a cancer that pulls a company down. This cancerous thinking causes an entire company to develop a bad reputation.

I attribute proprietary thinking to the demise of Sony. Remember them? They were the original Apple with great products. Eventually, people refused to buy their highly-incompatible products. I certainly remember wanting to buy a Sony camera and then when I discovered it couldn’t use an SD memory card Sony lost the sale.

As we praise Apple and cheer their wonderful designs, I think we need to be careful that we are still thinking cleanly and clearly. They are capable of profoundly bad design. Their new docking cable is a superb example of really poor design.