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Anyone who lives in New York City will tell you there are times when you just need to get away. Recently, I escaped
upstate for the weekend, and while I was there, I finished John Maeda’s excellent
little book The Laws of Simplicity, reading by the fire as a freak spring snowstorm
blanketed the mountains. The unusually tranquil environment might have something to do with it, but I couldn’t shake the thought that simplicity is in precious short supply these days–particularly when it comes to technology. We test product after product here at PC Magazine, and so many of them fail because they’re nowhere near as simple as they should be.

John Maeda is a professor, designer, and digital
artist at MIT’s Media Lab, and I’ve admired his work
for some time. Just a hundred pages long, The Laws
of Simplicity is overflowing with cleverly packaged
soundbites, aphorisms, and more acronyms that you
can shake a S-T-I-C-K at. That includes everything
from SHE (Shrink, Hide, Embody), a guide for successful
product design, to SLIP (Sort, Label, Integrate,
Prioritize), a method for organizing your life.
No, you won’t find KISS (You know: Keep It Simple,
Stupid). It’s a testament to Maeda’s genius that he
wrote a book on simplicity, yet managed to avoid
that one.

I could list all ten laws, but they’re easy enough to
find online. I’ll just give you Law 10, the most important:
“Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious,
and adding the meaningful.” This is something that
Apple surely understands–but among technology
companies, Jobs and the gang are in the minority.

PC Mag just finished testing the Sansa Connect,
a device that really changes what digital audio players
can do. Using built-in Wi-Fi, it automatically accesses
Yahoo!’s online catalog of two million tracks
of digital music, playing selections that cater to your
particular musical interests. It’s pretty impressive.
Even so, most of us on staff, and presumably most
users, would still prefer the Apple iPod nano. Not
because it does more, but because it does less. The
iPod interface is just plain easier to use. And that
makes all the difference.

I’ve noticed the same pattern as I read coverage
of the cell-phone market by our columnist and lead
analyst Sascha Segan. Vendors are adding all sorts
of new features to their cell phones, when they’d be
better off making common functions easier to use.
Most midrange handsets these days are capable of
SMS, e-mail, Web browsing, playing MP3s, and even
games, but most users never discover these features,
which are buried under arcane, counterintuitive
menus. Just ask yourself how many people out there
are living with their phone’s default beeps and alerts
because they don’t know how to turn them off. Making
calls is easy, but if you want to sell all those extra
features and functions, they have to be simpler.

Apple’s way with simplicity isn’t limited to the
iPod. I’ll let the Mac versus PC battle slide for now,
but we’re starting to hear the same patter in the
emerging field of media extenders. When we got
out hands on the Apple TV, we had it up and running
in less than an hour. By comparison, setting
up the Netgear Digital Entertainer took days. Even
if you ignore its stability problems, the Digital Entertainer
is just a hassle. Don’t get me wrong, it does
more. It plays more file formats and lets you stream
HD content from your PC. But Apple TV does what
most people want–and it requires less effort.

Now, there is an important difference between
consumer devices such as Apple TV and the classic
PC. The PC is by nature a multitasker, a tool capable
of an immense range of tasks, from calculating
spreadsheets to playing music. It’ll never be a simple
thing, and it shouldn’t be. Even the vaunted Mac
OS is hugely complex. For consumer electronics,
simplicity rules, but with computers, most people
still prefer power and flexibility. I know I do.

After all, sitting in the mountains meditating on
the relative simplicity of media extenders, I needed
to get these words down. Fortunately, I brought my
notebook. And those hills have excellent EV-DO
coverage.


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