The End of the Tinkering Geek (aka Closed is Good)

Posted on the 02/04/2010 at 07:07 PM

There has long been a grip on digital technology, so tight that it has choked much of it. It is the grip of the tinkering geek. Slowly though, this grip is being loosened and the tinkering geek is becoming less and less relevant to technology and to society. And I say good riddance.

The tinkering geek, by definition loves to tinker. They want to be able to open something up, hack it together, use it for something for which it wasn't originally intended. The tinkering geek wants to run Linux on a toaster or use their iPhone as a remote for everything in their house. The tinkering geek is also who designs and makes a lot of digital products.

Now you may think that these people are the sort of people you want working on designing and building this stuff. They know the subject, they have interesting ideas, they know what they want. The reality is these are the worst people to design anything. For all that they do know, they don't know the most important thing: what does a regular person want?

Closed is good

We are brainwashed from childhood that open is good, choice is good, freedom is good. And yes, to a degree all of those are good. But too much openness leads to unhappiness, too much choice leads to confusion and too much freedom leads to anarchy. There's a reason I don't have the freedom to walk down the street killing everyone I see.

Closed isn't inherently bad. Design by committee is open, design by a single person is closed. I can guarantee that the design by committee will produce a worse product. Open is good in some places and bad in others. Lets take software for example. Tell me a good piece of open source software that is a backend product eg server software, framework etc. There are 100s out there that are best in their class. Now tell me a good piece of open source software aimed at regular people. Not all that many.

Closed also leads to things that open can't. Apple's ecosystems are often considered closed. OS X only runs on Macs, iPhone OS only runs on iPhone, iPod touch and iPad. Compare this to Windows or Android which runs across 1000s of hardware configurations. Well, if we do compare then we'll see that Apple's ecosystems are generally more stable because they have more control.

One example of a closed ecosystem in our products is Code Collector Pro and By controlling the whole stack we will be able to implement stuff faster than competitors and even add some things that others aren't able to do at all. If we chose to be completely open and let it work with everything, it is more work for us, more code (increasing the chance of bugs) and doesn't really do anything quite as well.

Now I'm not saying everything in the world should be completely closed. I believe that some things need to be open, but most of these are things for people creating products to take advantage of, not for users to care about. A user doesn't care if a file format is an open standard. What they do care about is "can I save this at work and open it at home" and "will I be able to open it in a few years time".

Choice is bad

There was a great TED talk a few years ago on the "Paradox of choice" by a psychologist called Barry Schwartz. You should really watch the full video, but in a nutshell he points out that choice makes people unhappy and reduces your freedom. You don't want to spend choosing, you want to spend time doing. The best way to give users what they want is to have a few distinct choices rather than a large range of slightly different choices.

Apple is a prime example of this. Say I want a computer, here is the general thought process:

To the last question if you say power you get a 13" MBP, if you say price you get a MacBook and if you say portability you get a MacBook Air. Yes there is then the case of choosing which model, but again that comes down to a question of price vs power. The rest is just tweaking.

You want to take away the pressure of choice, you want to choose for them. 99 potential customers may want A and 1 may want B. Ignore the one that wants B. Don't even give users the choice between A and B. Sure you've made 1 person unhappy, but you've made 99 people happy.

The only time you should give the choice to your customers is if there is a really significant minority. Say it was 60 people wanted A and 40 wanted B. That is when you should consider whether adding the choice between A and B outweighs having 66% more people buy your product

The problem is that many people who make the decisions about whether to add a choice are tinkerers and often think "we'll I'd like to tinker around so others might". This leads to the technology we have today which does a hell of a lot of stuff, but which most people don't care about.

Tinkering Is Vital

Bullshit. I hear this a lot and that is all it really is. Lets look at 2 quotes from a post by Cory Doctorow on BoingBoing.

The original Apple ][+ came with schematics for the circuit boards, and birthed a generation of hardware and software hackers who upended the world for the better. If you wanted your kid to grow up to be a confident, entrepreneurial, and firmly in the camp that believes that you should forever be rearranging the world to make it better, you bought her an Apple ][+.

The idea that having a product that you can tinker with is what allows you to be creative or confident is silly. Technology is a tool. Knowing what is in it and hacking around with it is something a small minority have any interest in or find useful. Far more people care about using tools than what makes them.

Sure, tinkering can be fun to many people, but making tinkering easier for a few could make it a worse tool for everyone else. Lets take the example of the iPad. It could be made easier to tinker with, if you added screws to it to take it apart. However, adding screws increases costs, reduces aesthetics and, if you are also going to lay things out best to those wanting to tinker, could increase the size of the product. How many people would want the ability to take something apart over a cheaper, smaller more aesthetically pleasing product? VERY few.

Buying an iPad for your kids isn't a means of jump-starting the realization that the world is yours to take apart and reassemble; it's a way of telling your offspring that even changing the batteries is something you have to leave to the professionals.

This is just crazy talk. Sure, you could allow user replaceable batteries, but again like above it leads to a worse product. You have to add a mechanism for the battery to go in, to keep it in place and to encase the actual battery itself. This leads to more weight, more parts so more chance for failure and higher costs and also less space for the actual battery, so lower battery life. Now how many people would choose an easily (because you will be able to do it yourself if you really wanted to) user replaceable battery over a lighter, cheaper, more reliable product with greater battery life? Again, VERY few people.

Now let's think about something fundamental to economics: what are we buying? Contrary to popular belief, we are rarely buying a product. What we are buying is experience and knowledge. When I buy a mobile phone, I am paying for the experience and knowledge of the people that designed it and assembled it. I could, if I really wanted go and design and build my own. But my time is worth more to me than that.

An even better example is visiting a doctor. Why do I go and see a doctor rather than treat myself? Because they have done 5+ years of learning and experience. They know a hell of a lot more than I do. Sure I could go on the internet to find out why I'm ill, but is it really worth it if I'm wrong?

People are willing to pay for stuff that makes their life easier, that means they don't need the knowledge and experience themselves. This is why people pay a mechanic to fix their car or pay a chef in a restaurant to cook a greta meal or pay a company to replace a battery.

Tinkering doesn't matter

As much as some people like to try and convince you that tinkering is key to our freedom, our progress and our existence, they really mean "tinkering is key to my hobby". You don't need to tinker to learn something. Most of my learning was done through reading, watching and listening. Sure it is a way to learn, but it is far from the only way.

People who want to tinker will find a way to tinker, even if it is harder. I can still open an iPhone if I want to, I can still install different software. It just isn't easy and for that I am grateful, because it means that what came out of it was a product that I care less about how it works and more about what I can do with it. The sooner we get more products like this, the sooner we can have technology that is made for the majority, not the minority of tinkering geeks.

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