What federal digital services need: Simplicity

Online services are supposed to be uncomplicated. It's the programmer's job to mask complexity.

Remember the $100 laptop? The device was touted by Nicholas Negroponte for a project that would give a laptop PC to every poor child. There’s still a website for one-laptop-per-child. It says 3 million kids all over have received green plastic machines.

The idea was a machine not only cheap but also basic, reliable and rugged.

This came to mind when reading about Apple’s recent new iPhone announcement — all dutifully reported by the people paid to get excited about these things. What a juxtaposition. One struggling organization tries to give away cheap laptops. Apple reached $1 trillion in market capitalization mainly by selling $1,000 iPhones.

Reading the specs can be dazzling. My own iPhone is more than 4-years old. I don’t crave a new one. I’m still mad at Apple for dropping the mini phone plug socket. The “cheap” new phone, at $799 has a mere liquid retina display with 1,792 by 828 pixels. And a 1,400:1 contrast ratio. Why settle for that when for $1,099 you can get contrast radio of a million to one. And 2,436 by 1,125 pixels on a super retina display. Getting the low-end iPhone would be like buying gasoline without Platformate.

Apple even complicated the naming scheme. It used to be 3, 4, 5.  Now they use the less comprehensible XS, SX Max and XR.  It reminds me of the coffee chain, with its made-up words for small, medium and large.

What I really wanted from Apple was a new version of the Mac Mini. The company hasn’t updated it since 2014. Both of mine are old, and I’m worried whether they’ll last until a new model comes out.  I guess Apple still cares about making computers, but you wouldn’t know it from last week yawner.

A government worried about deploying digital services should think about what’s going on in mobile. Mobile is great, but the phenomenon I find most striking is complexity creep. Apps keep getting more feature rich. And more complicated. They take longer and longer to load. While they do, they feed up ads, which makes the loading slower. Often new versions require a complete relearning.

Operating systems receive updates a couple of times a year, always with more —and more obscure — features. Eventually the machine you have can’t take any more updates because the processor instructions are obsolete.

These phenomena apply not only to Apple but to many vendors and technology products. When’s the last time you tried to use a remote control at someone’s house who has a different cable or satellite provider than you? How about the panel on the latest washing machine, thermostat or car?

Early computer applications seem quaintly simple. As processing power grows exponentially, and memory and storage become exponentially cheaper, inefficient coding with excessive graphics and functions soaks it all up.

What the world needs is more simplicity. The best applications are programmed for maximum simplicity. The coding might be complex, like the inside of a six-speed transmission. The interface, though, should make life easier for the user. This is an area where the government has the opportunity stand apart from bloated, hard-to-use apps.

The Navy is said to have engineered the KISS acronym for keep it simple stupid (and variants)  back in the 1960s. That concept has endured because it’s correct.

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