Thursday, April 29, 2010

Progress, technology, and attitude

Progress is an interesting concept. It evokes thoughts of technological advancement, personal growth, or task completion. When talking about technological progress, we often hear people generalize and say things like, "things progress so quickly that it's hard to keep up." And as much as us gadget nerds might not like it, it's true.

For the vast majority of consumers, the tech world moves too quickly and in to many different directions to stay informed about it all. Most of them don't necessarily know or even care how their laptop, smartphone, or digital camera works, what they can and can't do, or how they compare to similar gadgets. They simply want it to do what it's supposed to do.

These are the people who may not be aware that the new cellphone they bought is inferior to another model, nor do they likely care very much. This doesn't make them any less intelligent than the gadget nerds who carefully read the spec sheets, it just means that different people have different interests and expectations when it comes to technology. So what does progress mean? Must it be universal? The dictionary defines progress as:
Developmental activity in science, technology, etc., esp. with reference to the commercial opportunities created thereby or to the promotion of the material well-being of the public through the goods, techniques, or facilities created. (
So the question then becomes whether or not progress is the same for everyone. Those in the tech community often seem to think so. Let's take a look at a few recent examples:

The Kin and the iPad
Microsoft recently announced two new pseudo-smartphones for Verizon, the Kin phones. The phones have some pretty nifty backup/sharing features, as well as integration into Facebook, Twitter, etc. They're targeted at the younger crowd and have tightly integrated photo/video sharing, messaging, and web browsing features. The gadget blogging world slammed the Kin phones for lacking key features like apps, calendar, etc.

Similarly, when Apple announced the iPad, although it received an overall warmer reception than the Kin, a number of high profile bloggers blasted it for containing too few features. Features like multitasking, USB support, and a camera all drew and continue to draw fire from the press.

These two products certainly aren't the only examples, but they both represent the same theme: progress. Tech bloggers and Microsoft haters were quick to jump on the Kin for not bringing enough progress to the table, and Apple haters are still bashing the iPad for not bringing enough progress. For both products, the tech community as a whole had an expectation of what progress would be and both products fell short in certain areas.

And yet the iPad is already a huge success, and the Kin phones, while not yet released, are likely to be big sellers, too. Why? Because progress represents different things to different people. New York Times writer David Pogue said it best in his video review of the One Laptop Per Child when he said, "...this laptop is not intended for the snarky bloggers. This laptop is intended for poor kids in other countries." Similarly, the Kin was never intended for existing smartphone users, and the iPad was never intended for power-users with 24" monitors.

Definition of Progress
The Kin phones are likely to be a big success because they represent major progress to their target audience. The phones are decidedly not meant for existing iPhone or Android users, but rather users of ordinary dumb-phones or feature-phones. According to Nielson, smartphones currently account for only about 30 percent of all mobile phones in the US. That number is expected to climb to over 50 percent by the end of 2011, but for now, there are still 70 percent of users that are using either a simple dumb-phone or a moderate feature-phone. For these people, the Kin is a massive upgrade and represents major progress.

What this proves is that progress clearly represents different things to different people. To the people who already have something better than the iPad, it doesn't offer much progress. But for those who can take advantage of its features, it offers substantial progress.

Criticism of Progress
It's a common human trait to resist change. We all get comfortable in certain areas of life and don't want to change. Things like where we live, where we work, our daily routine, even what brand of coffee we drink can all become habitual and we aren't always very receptive to changes. I understand that and definitely fall victim to it myself from time to time.

However, it does seem like the technology world receives more anti-change criticism than other areas of life. It's all too common to hear people of all ages complain about new gadgets or technologies. Mainstream news does this too with near daily stories about Twitter or Facebook problems. I overheard a conversation last week between two people who were lamenting the fact that brick-and-mortar stores to buy CDs are dwindling and, "remember the good ol' days" of music purchasing.

There's nothing wrong with nostalgia, of course. Remembering the past is an important part of life, too. I've even written three blog posts about nostalgic tech. But there comes a point where nostalgia crosses into resistance to change.

Progress always comes with growing pains, but it always ends up bringing improved lifestyles to those who embrace it. I honestly don't understand why people are so quick to shun progress in technology. I understand that things often advance too quickly for most people to keep up with, but that doesn't mean that immediate criticism of it is necessary. Likewise, if a product doesn't offer progress for you doesn't mean it lacks progress entirely.

Celebration of Progress
As a fan of Disney theme parks and of the Carousel of Progress in particular, I am very familiar with Walt's vision of progress. He was a huge fan of technological advancement and personally supervised the building of the Carousel to celebrate progress and the excitement of it. Sitting and watching the shows within the attraction really gives you a feeling of pride in American progress over the years and paints an encouraging picture of the future. I think the world would be a better place if more people would adopt his views of progress.

Would Walt have wanted to buy a Kin or iPad? Who knows, but he probably would have recognized the progress embodied in them and would have been excited about the future each represented.