The iPhone, Top Trumps, and widescreen TV

The BBC’s tech blog has posted a piece about the new iPhone, and, inevitably, the comments are full of people whining about how the iPhone is rubbish because it lacks some feature that competing phones have, or has inferior specs, and that people only buy it because of they are stupid fashion victims. 

This comment provides a particularly classic example:

What about MMS support -sure no one really uses MMS, but it’s kind of a missing feature don’t you think?

I’m not sure that people outside the UK ever had the pleasure of playing ‘Top Trumps’. The way it worked was that you had a themed deck of cards, which might be cars or footballers or whatever. And each card was scored with various qualities:

from the Pointless Museum

You had to turn over your next card and try to win your opponent’s card by challenging him to beat a particular score. With this set, the Horror Top Trumps (which I remember playing at primary school, incidentally), the scores are out of 100, so it’s very obvious that if it’s your turn to play and you have Dracula, you should challenge on ‘Horror Rating’. The winner gets both cards and gets to play again. Naturally enough, different sets had different kinds of scores. I assume that for Prehistoric Monsters, older is better.

from the Pointless Museum

This was all good clean fun, but it wasn’t a very subtle or nuanced way of evaluating which prehistoric monster (or sports car, or footballer) was really ‘better’. And I can’t help feeling that all those BBC blog commenters are just playing technology Top Trumps.

The idea that a technology product is more than the sum of its features is not a new insight. I’m just one of the many people who have been banging on about it for years. But it’s always worth reiterating because  those who are most fascinated by technology, and are the most vociferous about it, are exactly the kind of people who don’t get it. They are, in fact, the kind of people who would probably rather enjoy playing Tech Specs Top Trumps.

I have a favourite new example of the distance between those technology enthusiasts and the bulk of the public. I watched the Champions’ League final in a pub in Wales. The football was on a nice big widescreen plasma TV, and the signal was coming from Sky, so I know it was being broadcast in widescreen — but the picture was distorted. Presumably, at some stage there had been something on TV which was in a 3:4 ratio and they had changed the TV settings so that the picture was stretched to fill the screen, and had never changed it back.

I tried to explain what was wrong and offered to fix it, but unsurprisingly the barman was reluctant to hand over the remote control to a random stranger just before the biggest match of the season started. So Wayne Rooney looked even shorter and squatter than usual, and the ball was oval.

In other words, they’ve spent many hundreds of pounds on a TV, and however much it costs to get a Sky subscription for a pub, and are using it to distort the picture and cut off the edges. Because they can’t tell the difference? Because they don’t care? Or the most worrying possibility: perhaps they think that’s what widescreen is — a normal picture, stretched a bit.

There are probably many many people, all around the country, doing the same thing: using their expensive new equipment to distort the TV they watch. And the biggest favour you could do those people is not to provide them with more features: it’s to make sure they can use the features they have. If that’s true for something as simple as a TV, it’s even more true for a sophisticated smartphone. Ease of use and good interface design are so much more important for most people than the sheer number of features.

Look, it’s a good thing that there are people who go over these kind of technical specifications with a fine tooth comb and compare products against each other. It’s a valid kind of critique and provides useful information. But brandishing these numbers as though they are irrefutably The Final Answer is like saying “obviously the woolly rhinoceros is better than the archaeopteryx, because it weighs more”.

» All the pictures are taken from The Pointless Museum.

5 Comments

  1. 10 June 2008 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

    Pretty funny! Your post makes me think that the tech companies should employ anthropologists to research how people actually use stuff. I gather that Apple’s big advantage is that they do seem to have more insight into that.

  2. Harry
    10 June 2008 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

    All these companies pay lip service to the idea of a good user experience, and they probably think they’re trying quite hard to get it right, but Apple seems to have that kind of culture much more deeply ingrained. It seems like it’s not an afterthought, but an essential part of the whole development process. Even when they get things wrong, at least it seems like they were trying.

    Having said that, I haven’t actually tried any of the phones in question, other than playing with an iPhone for a minute or so in the Apple Store. I can believe that some of them really are better: given that Apple is such a recent arrival in the phone market, you might expect some of the more established companies to have better products.

    But a checklist of features isn’t enough to tell you whether a device will make your day to day existence slightly more pleasant or slightly less.

  3. 10 June 2008 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

    That game sound AMAZING. I want to play it so much!

  4. 10 June 2008 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

    Oh Christ, a typo. I sound like the freakin’ Hulk. Should I pretend that was my intent?

  5. Harry
    11 June 2008 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    It was educational too — how else would 9-year-old boys learn the engine capacities of dozens of supercars, or the relative killing power of Dracula and the Incredible Melting Man?

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