Minimalist vs. Baroque Categories--work in progress

The distinction between minimalism and baroque should concern technology makers, not only the aesthete. Technologies have been around for too long, we've spent too much money on them--at home or in corporations, yet we've have come to expect so little of it unless ready to fork out premium $.

Makers of technology have always known that their lock on the customer is an elusive goal. Technology companies try several ways to hold on their customers, with various levels of success, as far as market share, and price vs. duration, are concerned. As well, commoditization makes its way through, and in the end most all technologies become "black boxes," functionally distinct units, assigned to specific tasks rather than general purpose, that are simple to operate and mask unwanted complexity; specialization is addressed in small batches only. Resisting commoditization, the point where straight feature-comparisons start driving down the price, is yet another trend companies try to avoid their technologies from following. Balancing the two imperatives, to hold on customers and resist commoditization, is a tough act to follow.

One of the ways companies hope to stay relevant for their customers is to increase switching costs. This is what happens when, for example, software companies don't publish API's so that complementary technologies cannot be developed.

Another way companies try to hold on their customers is to provide increased perceived value relative to the price. Balancing perceived value vs. price has been achieved in a couple of notable ways: a) by subsidizing the user's (access) price with revenue coming from the provider of a service, and b) by leveraging scale economies, relatively complicated technologies are offered at lower prices. Client-server technologies typify the former alternative in which, say, the browser is free but the server costs one an arm and a leg. Low perceived cost relative to the amount of features also occurs when one pays, say, under $x for a technology utilized at a much lower scale than its capacity.

It is the last type of alternative that, when technology companies adopt it, fuels what people in the industry call bloatware or, as used in the title here, baroque categories. Several of Microsoft's products and services such as MSN, Adobe Photoshop, the AOL service, are good examples of this. After a certain point in the process of feature agglutination, it becomes clear that it is not your typical customer's needs that are being addressed by such technologies and services, but the technology companies' need to stay in business--see the resistance to commoditization. A rationale behind bloatware is that you either deal with specialized customers who need rich feature sets (Photoshop,) address the largest segment of the customers who, by definition, are technology illiterates (MSN, AOL,) or simply add a lot of features to keep 'price vs. features' type of challengers away from your market (MS Office.) In fact, in most cases, companies do it to defend their market share and/or because they cannot see it any other way.

Deconstructing technology, from a customer-centered perspective, generates the following elements: infrastructure, presentation, and experience--the CHI Triad [pronounced: kee]. Well designed and implemented infrastructures should take care of aspects such as reliability, scalability, interoperability, security, ubiquity of access, scale economies, platform approach, etc. Presentation is by and large what we also call look and feel. Good presentation, usually, makes it so that one can use the technology right out of the box or very soon after installing it--i.e. ease of use. User experience should consider the quality of all relationships between user and the technology over the duration of these relationships. Network externalities, safety, pay, being able to get the job done, perception of value, effects on environment, social clustering, usefulness, etc. Good customer experience presupposes that the underlying technology resonates with the customer context. Obviously, the farther away one moves from the infrastructure portion of a technology the more are the goals achieved by UI-, marketing-, creative-types. Conversely, engineering becomes stronger as one gets closer to infrastructure.

To return to bloatware, it can occur in each on of the chi triad's elements. Moreover, according to some companies, bloatware is the only way to show their worth. And, lacking alternatives, the frustrated customers march along. This course had seemed without alternatives, at least until Apple and Google launched their products and services. Minimalist approaches to technology, not exclusively in the presentation and experience areas, have brought customers products and service a renewed sense of hope for technology as a means to customer satisfaction. Minimalism should not be restrained to presentation and experience alone since Google and Amazon are powered by a myriad of Linux servers. An example of a successful product where minimalism rules over its user experience and presentation is Picasa, Google's image handling application. For most people, this is all one needs in a world with ever proliferating images of all types and standards: few simple options, plenty of affordances, enough built in interoperability with other complementary applications, ready to be used, and the list can go on. Apparently, Picasa is missing one feature alone: a free standing business case by which its thirtysome-dollar price is explicitly made up elsewhere in the Google's ecosystem. Unless Google decided to stay minimalist all the way!

A word of caution is necessary. Minimalism cannot be imposed as the new orthodoxy but rather as guiding principle, along each direction of the CHI Triad. When business considerations ask for a deviation from minimalism, striking a balance between minimalist and baroque approaches is required as good business practice. On a whole different level, minimalism also requires that a synthesis of users' representations be possible. Such synthesis becomes possible when a good set of the users' shared experiences accumulates.

For those asking : 'When StarOffice offers for free a great deal of MS Office's functionality, why is it that people still don't switch?' I have to confess that I don't have an answer. Maybe it has to do with some bio-evolutionary mechanism that also leads us into driving big trucks from home to the soccer field, only 10 minutes away. Psychologists, please help!

Takeaways: Minimalism vs Baroque Categories, Affordances, CHI Triad, Network Externalities, Scale Economies, Interoperability, Scalability.

Nota Bene: The CHI Triad is a tool developed and used by the author.


fCh said...

An interesting conversation that shows some of the drivers for approaches as suggested by the CHI Triad at:

Anonymous said...


March 28, 2005
Software start-ups think inside the box
Martin LaMonica, Staff Writer,

Talk to Fred Meyer, CEO of start-up Cast Iron Systems, about his company's data-integration product and you picture a shrink-wrapped cardboard box with a few software CDs inside.

Instead, his company makes something that more resembles a server or router, which can be slipped onto a rack in a corporate data center.

That product design choice is not by accident. Selling a hardware, rather than software, product gives Cast Iron Systems, which announced a fourth round of venture funding on Monday, an edge over rivals, Meyer said.

"We cheat," said Meyer to explain the company's tactics. "Customers today are starting to buy software the way they bought hardware 10 years ago. There's no longer magic in software--it's just another tool to get the job done."

Though far from widespread, the practice of selling boxes that combine both hardware and software engineering, instead of only software, has a bright future, proponents say. Some predict that appliance design will become a part of more and more applications as the approach catches on.

The main selling points behind an appliance are cost and speed. A device used for a specialized purpose can be easier to install and maintain than component pieces, industry executives said.

And in today's corporate technology market, "simpler" and "cheaper" are words that resonate with risk-averse customers eager to keep initial investments low and start-up time for projects to a minimum.

"The enterprise is really looking for something that has one or two magnitudes better performance and is very easy to insert in an IT infrastructure," said Ted Dintersmith, a partner at venture capital firm Charles River Ventures. "What IT buyer or CIO wants to sign up for a $30 million black hole, when the odds are one in three it will actually work?"

Old wine?
Dedicated appliances, of course, are nothing new. For years, networking companies have combined hardware and software in single-purpose boxes--routers and firewalls, for example.

But now, hardware packaging is being used more broadly.

Five-year-old Netezza, for example, has designed a database appliance tuned for data warehousing applications, where business users query historical data to analyze trends.

Jit Saxena, the company's CEO and co-founder, said Netezza's product design--which combines custom chips, storage and specialized software--gives it a leg up on entrenched providers such as IBM, Teradata, Oracle and Hewlett-Packard.

"Customers pay one-third or one-fourth (the usual cost) and get at least a magnitude of performance better," Saxena said. "This easy-to-use, low-cost-of-ownership (approach) will do a number on these general-purpose silos."

Netezza recently landed a fourth round of venture funding--$15 million--and plans to add 100 employees this year to its existing 140.

Another company, called nLayers, sells an appliance designed to prevent glitches by tracking the dependencies between different data center components. By contrast, its competitors, such as Relicore and Collation, sell their wares as software products.

Meanwhile, Google sells a corporate search appliance, and in the world of XML networking, there are a number of companies that sell appliances for tasks such as speeding up network traffic or providing Web services security.

These companies are taking advantage of the changing economics of the IT industry.

Costs of hardware have been pushed down persistently for years, making appliances cheaper to buy. Also, standardization is increasingly common in the IT industry, affecting everything from chips to software.

Netezza appliances, for example, employ commonly used database access interfaces, while XML hardware companies can use Web services protocols.

Hardware commoditization and better integrated components let start-ups use larger "building blocks" of preintegrated components and develop products more easily, industry executives said.

Dintersmith said this approach is a break with how companies have typically approached engineering. Typically, hardware companies dedicate three-fourths or more of their research and development budget to hardware and the rest to software, he noted.

"But with this new generation of companies, the software mix of their R&D budget is three-quarters or more. So for less than a quarter (of the budget), they are doing proprietary hardware, which is very different than business as usual," Dintersmith said.

Box nuances Speed of installation is an important factor in choosing a hardware design, according to industry executives.

In the case of Cast Iron Systems, its "application router" can be in production in about a month--a fraction of the time it would take using the traditional method of purchasing integration software, server, storage and other software components.

Meyer, who used to be chief marketing officer at integration software company Tibco Software, said the application router is well suited to relatively simple integration tasks.

"Friday afternoons I used to have beers with the (Tibco) global architects and ask how things went with customers. They'd say that it went fine, but they only used 5 to 10 percent of the product," Meyer said.

Meyer and others said that appliances do not fit every need. For example, Cast Iron Systems' product does not handle some of the more complex jobs, such as multistep business process workflows, that software integration products do.

Also, there is a significant difference between a software product that is simply sold with a commodity server and a device with a proprietary hardware design, said Kevin Anderson, vice president of marketing at DataPower, which sells a line of XML network devices.

"Network appliances are supposed to reduce complexity," Anderson said. "But that requires a totally different engineering discipline. It's not just choosing between shipping on a CD versus (in) a box."

Anonymous said...

Today's laptops have become obese. Two-thirds of their software is used to manage the other third, which mostly does the same functions nine different ways.

Matthew E. May said...

There are times in life when if fortunate, we experience a moment of utter clarity. We feel wide awake and connected and balanced: everything makes sense, we know exactly who we are, what we want, and why we’re here. In that moment, be it one blink or a thousand, our effectiveness is maximal. And yet our actions seem minimal, effortless even, and the experience is consummately satisfying.

These are shibumi moments.

Shibumi is a Japanese word, the meaning of which is reserved for just these kinds of experiences. With roots in the Zen aesthetic ideals of art, architecture and gardening, it has no direct translation in English, but has come to denote those things that display in paradox and all at once the very best of everything and nothing: elegant simplicity. Effortless effectiveness. Understated excellence. Beautiful imperfection.

The pursuit of shibumi in business, work and life is guided by 11 key concepts, which I became intimately familiar with over the course of eight years working with a Japanese company. Think of these as the Zen of business, or, as I like to call it, “The Shibumi Strategy.”

* Genchi genbutsu (go look, go see) is the key to shibumi in solving problems and feeding opportunities. The goal is to build skill in viewing problems and challenges from different perspectives, much like artists, sculptors, and photographers do when they look at their subject from every possible angle to enhance their ability to render “the truth.” U.K. urban designer Ben Hamilton-Baillie maintains that, “If we observed first, designed second, we wouldn’t need most of the things we build.”

* Hoshin kanri (goal alignment) has the aim of creating a framework for aligning strategy and goals. Everyone with a stake in your sphere of performance should be aware of, and have input to, your direction, goals and activities. As quality management guru W. Edwards Deming once said: “A goal without a method is cruel.”

* Kaizen (continuous improvement) may be thought of as an endless repetition of three steps: First, create a standard. Second, follow it. Third, find a better way. Repeat forever. What drives kaizen is a cycle of constant improvement and creative problem-solving, conducted in an iterative loop, the acronym of which is I.D.E.A.: Investigate, Design, Experiment, Adjust. And as actor Harrison Ford said in a recent interview: “There is no limit on better.”

* Hansei (reflection) is a discipline to be performed regularly after each key action, irrespective of outcome. In other words, it doesn’t matter whether your performance was an “A” or a “C,” or whether you missed your objective over or under, you conduct hansei in every case to better understand the process that led to a specific result. In fact, any time a gap exists between expectation and outcome, there is a learning moment, and thus a need for hansei.

Matthew E. May said...

* Shizen (naturalness) is a principle that seeks to achieve a balance between at once being of nature, yet distinct from it—to be viewed as being without pretense, without artifice, not forced, yet to be revealed as intentional rather than accidental or haphazard. For example, high-traffic intersections in Holland have been artfully redesigned to be void of traffic controls, resulting in naturally self-organizing order, fewer accidents and better vehicle flow.

* Koko (austerity) is a principle that emphasizes the disciplines of restraint, exclusion and ommission. Koko involves things that seem spare, even spartan, yet impart a sense of focus and clarity. The Twitter 140 character limit, the menu at In-N-Out Burger, and the FLIP video camera are all successful outcomes of keeping things spare.

* Yugen (subtlety) is a principle that captures the Zen view that because the human spirit indefinable, the power of suggestion is exalted as the mark of a truly authentic creation. Finiteness is thought to be at odds with nature, implying stagnation, loss of life. The reason the Mona Lisa smile is so seductive and mysterious is because Leonardo da Vinci blurred the corners of her eyes and mouth, a technique he created and called sfumato (smoky).

* Kanso (simplicity) is a principle that dictates that beauty and utility need not be overstated, overly decorative, ornate, or fanciful. Kanso imparts a sense of being fresh, clean, and neat. The Apple iPhone has a single “home” button. The Google interface is predominantly white space.

* Fukinsei (asymmetry) is a goal to convey the symmetrical harmony and beauty of nature through clearly asymmetrical and incomplete renderings; the effect is that the viewer supplies the missing symmetry and thus participates in the act of creation. The final episode of hit series The Sopranos had no ending... the audience was left to construct their own. The hatchback design of the popular Nissan Cube is asymmetrical.

* Seijaku (quietude) is a principle that emphasizes the fundamental Zen theme of emptiness, which implies an inexhaustible spirit. It is in states of active calm, tranquility, solitude, and quietude that we find the very essence of creative energy. Silent pauses in music, dance and theater, blank spaces in paintings, the use of negative space in graphic design all illustrate the power of seijaku.

* Datsuzoku (break from routine) is a principle that signifies a break from daily routine or habit, a freedom from the commonplace. It involves a feeling of transcending the ordinary and conventional. The result of datsuzoku is pleasant surprise and unexpected amazement. Most major breakthroughs in science and industry have come during a break from the problem at hand. Studies show that the ultimate break—sleep—is the best inducer of breakthrough insights, ideas and solutions.

Take these together as a cohesive set of guiding principles to guide the pursuit of shibumi. The last seven concepts I affectionately call “The Shibumi Seven.”