Archive for March, 2012

Where does feature creep come from?

March 30th, 2012 No comments

Bloatware is everywhere. You know it. More and more features creep into a piece of software until only a tiny percent is ever found, much less used, by consumers. In the early days, computer resources, from working memory and storage, to processor cycles, were scarce and programmers were forced to work within narrow constrains. Today, the opposite is true and features are crammed in to fill up the space of all these idle resources and when they’re full, bigger hard drives are an inexpensive upgrade. All this may enable bloatware, but it isn’t the cause. Bloatware is everywhere. Economics is the cause.

MS Word screen shot

Three menus deep to type three characters

Once Microsoft Word is sold with a feature, say, a menu item for inserting “RE:”, popular or not, it may cost nearly nothing to leave it in for the tiny minority of users who depend upon it. New features are valued by a longer and longer tail of users, but they add value none the less. For the rest of us, it becomes visual noise, rapidly filtered out from non-use. Digging three menus deep to type “R” “E” “:” certainly seems a bit ridiculous, but, how many Microsoft Word users, even knew they could? Or cared? No skin off their mouse finger.

Do think this problem is reserved for software? My office received a new color photo-copier/networked laser printer/fax machine/scanner. Email addresses can be stored in the printer to send scanned files to the users. Faxes can be sent from the desktop, and jobs can be stored for printing later (why, exactly, would you want this?). It also has four paper feed trays, which seems pretty reasonable for letterhead, envelopes, plain paper and larger size printing, but, and I bet your medium size office is just like mine: no one here actually mails things very often and three of the four trays are filled with plain white paper (the fourth one has larger plain white paper). This amazing piece of machinery can print both sides of the paper, collate in multiple ways, organize print jobs by speed, or efficiency. It can hole punch with two or three holes, and staple your documents in any corner or along one side. It can surely do much more, but I got bored reading the 300 page manual. How many of us in the office will use them, um, stapling features (I’m guessing none). Why, then, did we buy (well, rent) this behemoth? Beacuse that bloat is essentially free to us. We needed a printer with a certain capacity for the number of people who work here and the company that rents them to us has this. I’m sure some customers are super excited to have the auto-fold feature (yup, it does that too, I think, I mean it was in the manual, but I haven’t tested it yet), and the manufacturer closed a sale by having it in there, but the rest of us get all a package of features whether we use them or not.

The 1968 Corolla! It's little.

Only happens in the office? Take a look at the Toyota Camry. In 1978 the Camry was a special model of the Toyota Celica and was a compact car. It’s grown in size and features from year to year, encouraging satisfied users who like the brand and model to make the upgrade, but eventually leaving a gap for compact cars (like the Corolla, which, itself, began life as a tiny, sub-compact ). You could suggest that cars have gotten larger over time, but this isn’t true. Totoya still makes smaller compacts and even sub-compacts today. Cars don’t get bigger, individual models do. Features are added and standardized across models and manufacturers until they are cheaper to include then to remove. Try buying a car without electronic windows or without an automatic shift. Marketers push to add features so that the cars can be differentiated from competitors even if those features are of interest to only a few users.

Why would car manufacturers add GPS to cars when integrated GPS is almost always inferior to stand alone devices you can buy later? Even with development costs, adding technology enables auto manufacturers to claim tighter integration (true or not) with their cars and the extra couple of hundred bucks is lost in the over-all price of the car. Pressure to differentiate from others in the marketplace, has an added benefit of increasing the average selling price and with it over all revenue for the products sold. More revenue generates just the necessary cash it takes to research and lard on an integrated GPS in a car and still only charge a few hundred for it by the time it winds up on the showroom floor.

920 Calories!

Economics offers a better explanation than a range of convoluted arguments for American’s fast-food super-size me dietary demands. Restaurants, from fast-food to fine dining, increase their portion sizes because food is cheap, but empty seats are not. A restaurant has to pay its employees whether every table is full or not. They have to buy ingredients just in case tonight is a big night, and this food won’t be fresh long, unless they get it out the door in your stomach. If your plate grows large enough to feed you for three days, and costs only a few dollars more, well, you can always take leftovers home. And that’s all the better for the restaurant. They’ve actually gotten two or three meals out of you even though you really didn’t plan on eating at the same place twice in a week. There is simply little incentive for restaurants to offer you a reasonable portion at a lower price. It will cost the exact same amount of time to prepare and serve, and probably the same amount of time for you to eat it; but you’ll leave only half as much money behind as you would have otherwise (and maybe even complain that the portions were a bit smaller than expected). Economics warns us that there is no value in leaving them wanting more.

Why is this portion inflation, so prevalent in the United States and not everywhere else? First, it is popular elsewhere. Germans sit down to an entire pig’s shoulder for a classic meal and the Chinese regularly order many more dishes than they’re likely to eat. American restaurants suffer particularly from bloatware, thanks to a range of contributing factors. Food subsidies make the raw materials particularly cheap compared to labor which isn’t. In China, in contrast, ingredients and labor are much more closely priced and the benefit of restaurants pushing larger portions is mitigated. Culture has an influence too. In densely populated Europe, space is more limited, refrigerators are smaller and doggie bags are rarer. Customers don’t see as much value in giant portions if there’s no way to take away extra food, and no place to put it when they get home. Europeans have looked on with envy at our closet size fridges and they can be found in more and more houses today. Try asking for a doggie bag in Europe these days and there’s a good chance the waiter will not only return with a container, but he might even hold back the sneer.

Unfortunately, useless software features really do have a cost. Developing new versions of these tools with truly innovative features becomes impossible; flexibility in the face of a changing market is lost. It remains to be seen how well Microsoft’s new tablet-themed Metro operating system overhaul will manage when all the traditional Windows features consumers demand remain. As cars add feature after comfortable feature, older models fill up junkyards and newer ones barely improve more obvious features like fuel efficiency (and with it CO2 emissions). The healthcare costs of our bigger waistlines is already legendary, but blaming MacDonald’s for bigger portions is foolish. Restaurants are driven to this business model by forces well beyond how hungry their diners are.

Bloatware isn’t just for software and it isn’t free either. Steve Jobs famously said innovation “comes from saying no to a 1000 things.” It’s one of the hardest things we have to do in business or even sitting down to dinner. It’s just economics.

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