Appliances vs Tools: Are You A User of a Maker?

Writing on Google+ has made me aware that I see applications as tools — a set of features I want to fiddle with in order to figure out what I can do with it. Other people see applications as an appliances. Appliances are built to accomplish a specific task and you hope it has the features to do it well. Most people don’t try to deconstruct their dishwasher to see if it can be used for something other than washing dishes.

I’m more interested in what something can do than what it’s intended to do. So when Google+ implemented Pages and issued the invitation to “Create a Page”, I did. I saw that although Pages provide a way for business and brands to have a presence on Google+, Pages are not just for brands. They can be for organizations or events (Google needs to create a category for Events). If you’re writing a book, a website, or a blog, Pages can verify authorship to Google (via Direct Connect) so that search will point to your original content rather than the people who scrape your content. Individuals can use Pages to interact with Pages so that they can keep non-individual entities at bay.

When the tech journos and PR machines tie Pages to brands, not only do they cut off Page’s potential usefulness to us ordinary individuals, they throw people into tizzy. “Oh! The brands are here. That’s the end of Google+.” I’m completely mystified by the disconnect between the PR about Pages (they’re for brands) and the interface which touts “Create a Page” almost everywhere you look (they’re for everybody).

Stop telling me what it’s for and start telling me what I can do.

Looking back, I see I had the same issue with Circles. The default labels of Circles and the idea that you had to sort your friends into various circles complicated the mental model and initially put a lot of people off Google+. As one of my blog friends remarked, “I don’t get it. I keep sorting people into circles…then what?”

Worse were the guys who wanted a Circle appliance. “Why can’t Google+ sort my circles for me and find only the things I’m interested in reading?” Lift not a finger. Why be social when your machines can be social for you?

My ability to see through the PR and look at the feature set has sometimes led to disappointment. I’m still not over my frustration with the hashtag implementation that is actually a keyboard shortcut for keyword search. I’m still explaining the messaging system that is just a third way to access the existing feature of addressing a post to a specific person. Again, this is not so much a problem of what these features do or don’t do. My disappointment stemmed from how expectations were set, both in the announcement and the labeling of these features.

The biggest revelation I had this morning was not about tools or appliances. My revelation was that I see the world differently, that I’m so unlike the majority of people–people who don’t want tools, only appliances; people who aren’t curious enough to explore before adding a panicked opinion to a discussion; people who can’t be bothered to try this workaround or to learn this shortcut. If the appliance doesn’t work as expected, they bang on it and complain. If you offer them a solution, it’s too much trouble. It’s just a hack.

I like to fiddle with things. For me, everything’s a hack. The best thing about Google+ is that I’ve met so many people who are like me. Curious explorers. Irrepressible tinkerers. This is one echo chamber I’m going to maintain.

Update 2015-11-11

I wrote the original post four years ago and, although the specifics of the examples no longer hold, I found the conversation and conclusions still to be interesting.

What’s changed for me in the intervening years is my level of enthusiasm. I feel more and more manipulated by apps and app developers. Even when I find an appliance that I enjoy using, I’ve become wary of committing any time or data to it because it will be gone or changed (often without warning) down the road. This results in a loss of my investment in time and data.

Most recently, Evernote discontinued their targeted app Evernote Food. This was one of a handful of apps that I really enjoyed…fit exactly to my purpose for tracking what I ate at various restaurants and what I liked (so I could order or avoid a dish when I went back).Not only did it function as I required, it was quite nice to look at.

On September 30, Evernote discontinued it and imported all the notes (which can’t be edited) into its main product. All the hours I put into organizing my photos and thoughts lost. I’m so angry that I decided to export all my data and never use Evernote again.

And this behavior has driven me away from so many third-party solutions. Because every time I devote effort into some app I like, they change it or delete it. I would be happy using the model I purchased forever. I don’t see why it is necessary to disable something just because you stop making it. It would be if all our cars stopped working when they stopped making that make and model. Nov 11, 2015

Another Comment

My trust in other’s solutions has waned considerably in four years. For example, one of the first desktop applications I used was called MindWrite. I used it for many years, even after the original company was acquired and put out of business. That sad fact did not prevent me from using and enjoying my original purpose.

My Evernote Food experience is a sharp contrast. I can understand that Evernote might decide it is not economically feasible to continue to support it. It might pull it from the market, stop updating it, or even stop letting us add new entries. But why did it have to disable it completely? Disable it in a way that prevents me using the data that I spent so much time putting into it?

Not only did that corrode my trust in Evernote, it makes me suspicious of any new solution that someone might offer me. So, in my case, Evernote destroyed the market for this kind of application for themselves and for anyone else. 

Maybe that’s one reason I resposted this article…because so much has changed for me in this landscape in a scant four years. I find it very difficult to get excited or be an advocate for new technologies any more.There doesn’t seem to be a question of whether something is an appliance or a tool? The “tool” landscape has greatly diminished. Everything is an appliance and we are expected to fit our needs to the tool, to be satisfied with a pre-determined solution, rather than use tools to satisfy our needs…each of us having slightly different needs.Nov 11, 2015