Product Development 101: Functionality before fluff

I’ve been writing off and on about the apparent flattening or decline in IT spending by corporations for at least five years. That’s well beyond what might be called a cyclical downturn.

It’s certainly positive that companies are able to do more with less when it comes to technology, but not

so great for the IT providers. Flat or lower revenues translate into lower R&D spending, and, in the longer term, less innovation in the products brought to market.

With reduced innovation, manufacturers are implicitly admitting IT has been reduced to a replacement market. I’d like to argue they’re conceding defeat too soon.

If inventors can still build better mousetraps and industrial designers and ergonomists can team up to build better hammers for carpenters (and they do), surely our IT suppliers can improve the functionality of our technology. This will increase our productivity, which should lead to higher salaries, more leisure time, higher corporate revenues and profits, and happier shareholders.

What I’m seeing, though, is more fluff than functionality in new releases of both hardware and software. Moore’s Law still prevails, but where are those cheaper, faster processing cycles going? I know for sure they’re not going to improving my productivity. Instead, I’m getting better sound, less choppy video, prettier screen savers, integration of applications where none is required, and I’m forced to use multi-user features on a PC where I’m the only user. No wonder IT buyers aren’t in a hurry to replace existing equipment. Where is the improved functionality for office professionals?

Let me use the spreadsheet application as an example. I’ve been an Excel user since Microsoft originally wrote v1.0 for the Macintosh — years before Windows was mature enough to support a version.

A spreadsheet is defined by its functionality, and as the list of built-in scientific, financial, statistical and engineering functions grew with each release, the happier I was. Otherwise, I had to build my own macros to fill the gaps, and those always ran slower than built-in functions.

Then, around v4.0 or so, the growth in the number of built-in functions practically ground to a halt. Instead, we started getting prettier charts, the ability to add sound and pictures, and a complete set of word processing capabilities. For a spreadsheet?

Now, a few more releases of hardware and software later, I’m back to writing macros and I can consume a full lunch while some of my spreadsheets update their contents on a high-end PC. On the other hand, I could write this entire column in a single spreadsheet cell, if I wanted to. Some productivity builder.

But, that’s just my example. I’ll bet each of you can tell a similar story about your own most critical app(s).

So, why can’t we get back to letting Moore’s Law improve computing, not cosmetics? If we can have both, great, but functionality before fluff, please! Then watch the IT buyers open up their purse strings.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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