What’s So Great About ‘Good Enough’ Tech?

Wired17-09

In September's Wired magazine, senior editor Robert Capps (rcapps [at] wired [dot] com) observes that the MP3 audio format prevails despite the advent of digital audio algorithms that offer greater sonic resolution with comparably small file sizes. Capps speculates that the incremental gain in fidelity, as delivered by newer digital formats, offers insufficient advantage to prize the lossy, old format from the clutches of mobile audio listeners. In short, MP3 may be mediocre (Bob used a harsher word that, coincidentally rhymes with his last name) but for the majority of listeners-to-go, it is mighty good enough.

In MP3s, Capps finds the perfect metaphor to shed light on an often-overlooked phenomenon at the intersection of Good-Better-Best Street and Better-Faster-Cheaper Boulevard. There is mounting evidence to predict that, when presented with an array of sparkly tech-choices, portable music listeners tend to favor, as Bob puts it, "flexibility over high fidelity, convenience over features, quick and dirty over slow and polished." In short, "having it here and now is more important than having it perfect."

A note to our Type-A readers: In future articles, AV-1 explores how this phenomenon relates to classrooms, but for now, feel free to share your comments and observations (below or on the AV-1 List).

Among the numerous examples offered, these three stand out as most relevant for our purposes: Flip Ultra, Skype, and Netbooks.

1. Good Enough Camcorder: Flip Ultra

Flipultra

Flip Ultra first hit the market in 2007. At a time when market leaders Sony, Panasonic and Canon unleashed HD camcorders on the consumer market, the folks at Flip bucked the trend with lo-fi 640×480 resolution, postage-stamp-sized LCD display, and no-zoom-for-you features for $150. By December 2008, these cigarette-pack cameras became the nation's best selling video cameras, commanding 17% of the camcorder market compared to Sony's 21%. It is any surprise that Cisco snapped up Flip this May for $590M?

Flipultra02

What's so special about a cheap camcorder? It's SIMPLE. That's all there is to it. There is nothing to forget to pack with it for the holidays because the USB cable is built right into the camera, which automatically installs its FlipShare software onto any connected computer (PC or MAC). FlipShare includes basic movie editing features and one-click publishing to YouTube and social networking sites.

Flipultra-k12

Who, you may ask, would buy such a thing? The same people who buy point-and-shoot digital cameras and single-use cameras: K-12 schools, grandparents, stocking-stuffers, parents of graduating seniors, parents of graduating kindergarteners. Until the Flip came along, there was no camcorder equivalent to entry-level still image cameras. It was a case in which the money (and market) was just waiting on the table.

2. Good Enough Voice Calls: Skype

Skypelogo

Skype allows users to make Internet voice calls to other Skype users through a computer (PC, MAC, Linux)… Anywhere in the world… And it's FREE. Given the uneven throughput of the commodity Internet, callers may encounter occasional wobbly audio and latency (a brief delay between long-distance, two-way conversations occurring over a low-bandwidth medium), however Skype's compatibility and usability are without compare. The nearly half-a-billion Skype users around the world seem to agree that a somewhat less-than-telephone-like experience (married to virtually no support) is an acceptable level of service for free, worldwide, computer-to-computer calling.

Skype01

Why Skype? By the early 2000s, Internet access throughout the liberated Eastern European states had made Internet access more economical than plain-old-telephone service (POTS). The development of two-way IP protocols such as H.323 and SIP provided a foundation for Voice over IP (VoIP), however most implementations proved to be costly, hardware-centric solutions just as susceptible to the aforementioned anomalies associated with low-bandwidth. Along came three Estonian programmers who'd already lit the world on fire with Kazaa. They figured that occasional audio glitches might be acceptable if the cost of entry was low enough. 

SkypeUser

Assuming you already had a computer and Internet access to download the free Skype software client, the cost would be zero. Turns out, zero-dollars is the sweet spot for good-enough VoIP. The company was acquired by eBay in 2005 for $2.6B (against whom Skype's founders have now filed a $75M/day suit), sold off this September for $1.9B. In 2006, they added videoconferencing, and in 2009, was a winner in cNet's Webware 100.

3. Good Enough Computing: Netbooks

Netbook07

Netbooks look like baby laptops: smaller screens, cramped keyboards, skinny form factors. They come with low-cost processors that extend battery life and, only recently, higher-end models feature actual hard drives in place of RAM drives. Don't expect to run Photoshop on one of these. Don't even think about loading Cakewalk multi-tracker.

Most folks, however, rarely require such processor-intensive applications. Most of us surf the web and send email and instant messages — tasks to which netbooks are perfectly suited. (Frankly, most of the time, a smartphone would be enough, but we'll save that
discussion for later.) Unlike feature-rich laptops, which can set you back well over $2k by the time you've tricked out a "desktop replacement," it appears as if an invisible law enforces netbook pricing limits, since you'll be hard-pressed to find one selling for more than $400. Heck, the 2.4-pound HP Mini Broadband Edition with an 80GB drive is only$199 (plus mobile data plan activation).

Netbook08

Netbook shipments increased 700% in the first quarter of 2009. An indirect contributor to the surge is the universal acceptance of cloud computing in which the applications used to construct spreadsheets, word processing documents, presentations and even CAD drawings are available on the web, for free. These browser-based applications may lack some (or, in some cases, most) fancy features of Microsoft Office or AutoCAD, but most users are not writing dissertations, designing high-rise buildings, or making final cuts to an indie film.

In some cases, the gap between software features that are needed (just a few) and features that are provided (oodles and oodles) has resulted in consumer push-back (see: Windows Vista, Microsoft Office 2007 Word ribbon). Bloated applications can sometimes remind us of that Swiss Army knife we received for our twelfth birthday, but we'll save that sermon for later, as well.

Netbook04

Many people do, however, work in groups and collaborate on documentation. This, it turns out, is an activity for which Google Docs are perfectly suited. With Google's spreadsheet, for example, many people can perform data entry on the same document simultaneously — a feature unavailable to Excel users, thanks to archaic record locking. Need a web-form to post a quick, down-and-dirty survey or to collect data? Google Docs can hook you up in minutes and deliver the data ready-to-go in a Google spreadsheet.

In the face of penny-pinching economics, the combined effect of these two tech-events — Atom-powered netbooks plus the demystification (should we call it google-ization?) of cloud computing — result in a perfect storm of consumer technology adoption.

4. Good Enough: Your Turn

Consumerism is in our bones. With cold hard cash burning a hole in the pocket of our Christian Dior trousers (or Gucci bag), we shop with intent to buy nothing but the best. Should our budget fail to meet our aspirations, we feel a loss over the compromise: we had to settle for less.

It is easy to dismiss the notion that good-enough design theory, as applied to a product or service, amounts to little more than a novel form of self-hypnosis to sooth our ego while we haplessly lower our standards, however that is not what good-enough is all about. Great implementations of good-enough theory liberate users from feeling that they have compromised at all. Furthermore, those who buy in to good-enough tech often regard themselves as savvy shoppers and clever early-adopters.

Good-enough300b

The essence of good-enough is found in the degree to which it strikes a perfect balance between what could be done with an array of features, functions and services, and what actually needs doing. Somewhere within the region between these two points resides good-enough nirvana.

It is the market that drives the direction of the needle: what people might be willing to pay in order to achieve ease-of-use, tempered by what people are willing to live with, accept or work around.

We are surrounded by tools, objects, solutions, gadgets and processes that are, to the casual observer, nothing fancy. It is those things that persist despite their apparent ordinariness that are often truly elegant or, some might say, innovative.

Look around you and tell us, what do you see?


Creative Commons License by Joe Schuch
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

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