A couple of weekends ago, our Linksys E3000 router bit it. The wireless radio had gone bad and was causing terrible performance and disconnects. It was under warranty and I intended to replace it but we have too many devices in the house to go without a router so I decided to purchase a new one and sell the replacement E3000. Being frustrated with Linksys, I did a bunch of research and decided to get a Netgear WNDR3800. There was only one of these left in Ottawa and it was at a nearby computer store so I flew out to grab it.
After getting it all hooked up, I noticed something odd. The router had all the normal status lights for WAN, LAN and wireless but even when the router was busy, the lights stayed solid. They didn’t blink to indicate activity like proper networking devices do. Indeed, this functionality on our E3000 was partly how I determined it was bad. I restarted the Netgear, same result. I checked the setup to see if there was a light control option, nothing. I checked the manual and the setup’s help function, nothing mentioned. Eventually, I went digging in Netgear’s forums and discovered that on all their new models, the light flashing has been disabled because focus groups complained that the routers were too confusing and distracting when all the lights flashed. Rather than save money by just removing the lights entirely or putting an option in the firmware to enable flashing for advanced users, Netgear just locked all the lights and didn’t tell anyone, assuming no one would care. Loads of power users who use the status lights to diagnose issues were furious but Netgear said this was the path they were going down and while they would consider adding a toggle to the firmware, they promised nothing. Indeed, many other manufacturers like Linksys have removed many status lights entirely from new models. I returned the WNDR3800 and am now using the replacement E3000 which is working fine.
The more I look at the way technology is going today, the more I think that it’s becoming like this picture. Like so many other things in the world, manufacturers of all kinds of stuff, be it computer hardware, software, mobile phones or whatever have become obsessed with everything being designed to accommodate the most ignorant and stupid of us. Routers don’t have status lights, some laptops are ditching hard drive indicators and phones and tablets have become walled gardens where you can’t do anything outside of the designer’s carefully crafted vision because you know, you might break something! Everything has to have a UI that’s more about bubbly style than function and where nothing can be explained with the slightest hint of technical language because having to run a Google search on an error is time you could be spending watching Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. It’s becoming an epidemic and I’m so sick of it.
Now before anyone freaks out, I’m not one of those curmudgeon types who thinks everything should be back in the era before Plug N’ Play and that we should all be using command lines. I like my graphical user interface with its effects, I like drivers that install with a setup program, I like things that work and don’t break for ridiculous, unexplainable reasons. But none of that requires that useful functionality be stripped away because someone might have to use a few extra brain cells to figure out how to do something or be scared off by it. Simplicity does not equal stability and it certainly does not equal security.
Computers and modern technology are not and were never supposed to have been things that just any Joe Ignoramus could pick up without any effort whatsoever. It has a learning curve, you’re supposed to learn it. It’s not the job of any tool to make itself so easy to learn that anyone can become an expert with no effort, it’s the job of the user to learn what to do and then to learn more and even eventually master it if they so choose. Don’t know what all those blinking lights on your router do? Then look it up and learn something! Getting spyware on your PC all the time? That’s not Windows’ fault, that’s your fault for not paying attention to what you click on! Technology and the software that powers it should be stable, secure and intuitive yes but none of those things require it be dumbed down to the point where it excludes not even power users, but just users with more than the most basic level of knowledge. The power users are not the most numerous customers but they’re the most valuable. We’re the ones who replace routers every year instead of every 3, we’re the ones who evangelise brands and camp out in lines for upgrades. To exclude them (especially in completely unnecessary, correctable ways like Netgear is doing) is to shoot yourselves in the foot in the long term.
Being as much of a AAA prime cut “Apple hater” as I am, it would be easy for me to say this is all their fault. While it’s true that Apple in many ways leads the charge of making electronics less open in order to be moron friendly, they’re certainly not the only offenders and probably far from the worst as well. This is an industry wide problem affecting hardware and software makers alike and it’s one that needs to change. Technology can be intuitive and friendly without having to assume everyone who touches it is an idiot that can barely tie their shoelaces. Knowledge is not a dirty word and asking users of your products to either possess some going in or to acquire it if lacking isn’t a weakness, it’s a bonding opportunity. The know-nothing users of today are your future fanboys but not making them work for anything does nothing to tie you to them in the long term.
We as a society are not entitled to constant, instant gratification and learning solution to problems (even small ones) is what drives engagement, passion and makes us want to learn even more. When your default response to someone saying “This is too complicated.” is to remove the complication rather than go “You should learn more and here’s how you can do it.”, you’re ultimately failing your customers and the advancement of your craft. Let’s make technology simple but let’s also stop making it any dumber.