Julian Simioni

In Defense of Configuration

Today I stumbled across Rands’ article praising simple design and criticizing the multitudes of options most products, especially software products, seem to offer us. Considering I write and code only in VIM, compile Linux on all my computers from source, and don’t even have a GUI of any kind on the computer I’m using to write these particular words, it should be clear where I stand. While great to a point, I find the idea of extreme simplicity in product design ultimately unhelpful.

Okay, first, lets get some things out of the way where we agree. Is there a lot of software out there that is unnecessarily complicated? Yes. Does radically simplifying a user interface and providing intelligent defaults lead to wins for everyone? Absolutely. Did anyone really want separate “Apply” and “Save” buttons in their option dialogs, instead of everything saving automatically? Hell no.

What’s my problem then? Years of relentlessly following this road lead us to a world where everyone has devices with beautiful form factors and intuitive interfaces, but all their functionality is encapsulated in small, incompatible, single purpose apps. This line of thinking kills general purpose utilities, and it doesn’t allow for those magical tools that can do things their creators never envisioned. It kills creativity and the wonderful feeling you can only get from creative tasks where there are no limits to what you can make. Overly minimalist, single purpose products enable and promote consumption, not creation.

Hopefully I’m wrong, but while there have been millions (even billions) of people in recent years experiencing computing for the first time with new mobile phones, it doesn’t seem that people are seeing these devices and thinking of anything beyond the immediate uses that a few apps can give. Despite having more computing power than we could have dreamed of just a few years ago, wireless connections to the internet wherever they go, and a suite of hardware like accelerometers, excellent touchscreens, and GPS receivers that have never before existed together on any computing platform, our smartphones are nearly useless for creating anything beyond selfies and status updates.

I don’t think this is intentional. No one is actively trying to discourage creation. But we may soon be entering a strange time where computing is ubiquitous, but the tools needed to program them are not. With desktops and laptops, we had both, and really, it was accidental. Every home had a computer, and no matter what it was purchased for, every one of those computers had the power to create amazing things. As someone who discovered programming largely on my own on a computer originally meant for playing games, I can’t help but think our industry or society in general will be missing something when all we have are locked down smartphones.

So what should we do? With the possibility that fewer people will discover programming on their own, we’ll have to be even more deliberate about recruiting them. We’ll have to take every opportunity to remind people, especially young people, that the little device has amazing and limitless power to create. That the people who built, designed, and program your phone are no different or smarter than you, and that you can do it too.