Simplicity versus, well non-simplicity

I’ve had an interesting week, last Friday my corporate Blackberry Torch that was only 2-months old, was put in a ziploc bag with my name on it, and I was given a Dell Venue Pro phone with Windows Phone 7 in it’s place. I’ve written a detailed breakdown of what I liked and didn’t like. The phone itself is pretty rock solid, well designed, nice size, weight etc. and a great screen. Here is a video review which captures my views on the phone itself, a great piece of work from Dell.

What is interesting though is the Windows Phone software. Microsoft have obviously put a lot of time and effort into the User Interface and design experience. Although it features the usual finger touch actions we’ve come to expect, the UI itself, and the features it exposes have been carefully designed to make it simple to do simple things. There really are very few things you can change, alter, almost no settings, only very minimal menu choices etc.

What makes this interesting for me is this is exactly the approach we’ve taken with our UI. When trying to take 79-steps, involving 7x different products and simplify and automate it, it would be easy to make every step really complicated, and just reduce the number of steps. However, all that does is mean that there would be more chance of getting something wrong with each step; my experience with this type of design is that not only is the human operator more likely to make a mistake, but the number of options, configurations and choices drive up the complexity and testing costs become prohibitive, and eventually mistakes are made. Combinations not expected are not tested, tests are run in orthogonal configurations.

Back when the autonomic computing initiative was launched some 10-years ago at IBM, there seemed to be these two diametrically opposed desires. One desire was to simplify technology, the other was to make systems self managing. The problem with self managing is that it introduces an additional layer, in many cases, to automate and manage the existing complexity. To make this automation more flexible and to make it more adaptable, the automation was made more sophisticated and thus, more complex. The IBM Autonomic Computing website still exists and while I’m sure the research has moved on, as have the products, the mission and objectives are the same.

Our Virtual Integrated System work isn’t anywhere near as grandiose. Yet, in a small way it attempts to address whats at the core of IBMs’ Autonomic Computing, how to change the way we do things, how to be more efficient and effective with what we have. And that takes me back to Windows Phone 7. It’s great at what it does, but as a power user, it doesn’t do enough for me. I guess what I’m hoping at this point is that we’ll create a new category of system, it is neither simple, nor complex, it does what you want, the way you want it, but with flexibility. We’ll see.

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About & Contact

I'm Mark Cathcart, formally a Senior Distinguished Engineer, in Dells Software Group; before that Director of Systems Engineering in the Enterprise Solutions Group at Dell. Prior to that, I was IBM Distinguished Engineer and member of the IBM Academy of Technology. I'm an information technology optimist.


I was a member of the Linux Foundation Core Infrastructure Initiative Steering committee. Read more about it here.

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