The reason cellular telephones are so simple is that the technology behind them is invisible to the user. That is probably one of the reasons why cellular phones have become so popular. There are no complex systems to learn and memorize, it is usable throughout the United States, all brands work the same, and it can be used by anyone who has used a telephone.
The same is also true for many other products. Fax machines are very easy to use, which again may account for their increased popularity and mushrooming sales. About all you need to know is how to dial a telephone number.
On the other hand, VCRs are not quite that simple. To pop a tape in the machine and watch it is OK. But if you want to set the time or preprogram it, you get involved in the arcane machinations the manufacturer has arbitrarily chosen to do those things. Naturally, no two manufacturers ever pick the same procedure. That is why approximately 74.8% of all VCRs in the United States blink 12:00, and there are only 67 people over the age of 30 who know how to program a VCR so that you can have it record next week’s L.A. Law.
Computers are the worst! Until the IBM PC came along, all the hardware manufacturers jealously guarded their procedures, processes, and protocols. Software manufacturers have taken this attitude beyond the pale. Each developed a procedure deemed to be the best, for whatever reason. They do not care a whit whether you can or cannot use the program based on your previous experience.
Software developers seemingly have an insatiable desire to force you to get involved in their technology, regardless of whether it is convenient or comfortable for you. The next time you browse in a bookstore, note how many magazines, books, monographs, and other publications there are available on using certain software packages, or other intricacies of computer operation and function. Compare that with the number of books that you find on the shelf on how to work a refrigerator or a stove, even a TV or a microwave oven. That’s the beauty of invisible technology. You don’t see it, and you don’t need an instruction book to use the product.
The reason many companies like to have their own way of doing things is that they feel it locks a customer into their technology, system, or whatever. That is probably true. However, unless you have more than 50% of the market, it also locks everybody else out. It is really not good long-term economics to lock in 20% of the market and lock out 80%.
Having ways of doing things that force the user to get involved in the intricacies of the technology does not make for rapid market acceptance and product growth. Potential users will sit on the sideline and wait for one technology to dominate before making a buying decision. (Remember the VHS and Beta wars?)
Markets where the technology has become standardized and invisible and identical from one manufacturer to another are the ones that grow by leaps and bounds. That is what happened when IBM set de facto standards for personal computers.
Products with uniform standards and invisible technologies like telephones, for example, are sold, not on the intricacies of a technology, but on brand name, convenience, appearance, perceived reliability, availability of service, and, yes, even price. Too many companies have not yet learned that it is much easier to market products on these attributes than it is to try to lock in one set of customers and guard them zealously for a time.
Think about that the next time you want to develop a product that is so unique and so special that only you know how to operate it.
Never let the user see your technology.