Jag Venugopal's Blog

September 13, 2010

What you leave out is as important as what you include

Filed under: Information Technology — Jag @ 12:39 am

I’ve been following news reports of the release of Amazon’s latest third-generation Kindle device. It appears that the device has been well-accepted, given the number of glowing reviews, and given the waiting list for a Kindle. I think there’s a lesson to be had from Amazon’s success with the Kindle that IT can learn.

When the Apple iPad came out, many observers predicted the death of the Kindle. The iPad was a general purpose tablet, had a color screen and flawless video performance, while the Kindle was suited to reading monochrome books with most content in textual form. Apple was crowned king of the eBook world, with publishers flocking to Steve Jobs to sign up contracts.

Indeed, Amazon could have hit the panic button and tried to out-iPad the iPad. That would have entailed the addition of an LCD screen, perhaps a new operating system and API, a heavier and thicker gadget with reduced battery life. Instead, what Amazon did was to go back to basics, stick with what made sense for a dedicated eBook reader and stripped out anything that was superflous. The Kindle adds virtually no new features (it even stripped out 3G access from the basic version of the device); if reviewers are to be believed, it significantly improves on existing features — crisper text, improved battery life, smaller, lighter, significantly less expensive.

Commercial software has a lot to learn from how Amazon approached Kindle 3. Most every iteration of a software system is more bloated than what came before it, in an attempt to please some constituency, howsoever small. Witness the monstrosity that Microsoft Word has turned into, from what was a simple word processor. Even Apple is not immune to this… iTunes now rivals Microsoft Word for the title of feature bloat champion. Perhaps what we need is new thinking that views removing features (or at least controlling bloat) as a worthwhile goal. Fewer features, better usability, lower price can sometimes overcome a strong competitor, as Amazon’s example clearly demonstrates.

In a similar vein, much complaining is directed at IT projects that are either late or are outright failures. Empirically, I’ve observed the same feature-bloat dynamic that plague Word and iTunes. IT systems that paid heed to feature bloat and consciously avoided it would have a better chance of completing within time and budget constraints, in addition to being maintainable over the long run.


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