Side Effects of Competition: Muddled Choices & Feature Creep

Most regulators work on the premise that the more there is competition in the market place, the better choices and better quality there are for clients. That notion has been going through my mind for the last couple of days as having too much choice can be debilitating. From a basic consideration, more choices ultimately does lead the manufacturer/provider to try to differentiate his product/service from his competitors so in the end the end users benefit. However, the struggle to improve the product is shared across all the competitors in the industry so it is reasonable to expect that all products that target the same space would sooner or later reach the status of being good enough for the customer.

It is at this point then that quality parity causes choice to become more of a big problem for customers than a blessing. Such a scenario is currently playing out with smart phones – the staggering number of operating systems is simply amazing. Most of the increasingly leading platforms – iPhone and Android – are adding significant features with every release. It is too early to proclaim Smartphone operating systems mature so it goes beyond copying what a competitor has implement but instead implementing features that make the operating system better at serving end users’  needs. On a feature for feature basis, there isn’t enough difference between an iPhone and Android device.

Sure, the iPhone has a more comprehensive support structure around with the iTunes and the content therein but then again such a support infrastructure is being setup around Android and almost every player in the mobile phone industry wants to have an app store.

The Android ecosystem interesting as it is virtually an attempt to replicate the Windows model on mobile devices – a single platform that is installed on hardware manufactured by different companies. If this analogy is taken further, you will note that on a purely functional basis in, there is not much difference between a Dell, Toshiba, HP, Acer etc laptops or desktops. So far the analogy has not played out that way since Google’s Nexus One didn’t do so well in the market while the Motorola Droid is by the far the most successful Android device so far with regard to the number of units sold.

Another side effect of competition is increased feature creep which ultimately makes a product remarkably more complicated by deluding its raison d’être. A good example in this instance would be Microsoft Office. Think of Microsoft Office 2003 which had the old school menu systems. In an application like Word, there is an incredible wealth of features and capabilities hidden in those menus and few people can reach to them quite easily. In my experience, I have come across word documents that have a table of contends that was constructed manually even though Microsoft Word has had the ability to automatically generate and keep a table of contends updated. However, because of feature creep more of the software’s capabilities are hidden from the user making their accessibility and continued use more complex even for easy task. Still on a related idea, the fact that reaching a feature needs the continued need to navigate a hierarchy of menus, means that the full power of the application is not made easily accessible for daily and repeated use.

Microsoft Office new ribbon interface was meant to bring more of the suite’s capabilities to the users’ attentions so as to enabled repeated and continued use of what the product offers. Has it worked? I am not convinced but in some ways it is an improvement over the old user interface.

In closing, the competition in Smartphone operating system need to be kept sane and focused on delivering real and effective benefits to users instead of just piling on the features which may eventually get in the way of a more enjoyable and productive use of the platform. I must admit that so far Apple seems to be working on this as a deliberate objective in the evolution of its operating system. On the hand, the fundamental model that the Android operating system follows makes it a tough sell to keep that level of focus and in the process ensure a more coherent platform experience for users, developers and network operators alike.

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