MIT Media Lab Professor: Tech should be simple like Apple iPod, not bloated like Microsoft Windows

Dr. John Maeda, an associate professor of design and computation at the M.I.T. Media Lab and an award-winning graphic designer, has spent eight months putting forward his own one-word vision of the future: simplicity,” Jessie Scanlon reports for The New York Times.

“There is too much needless complexity in the world, he argues. Technology, which was supposed to make our lives easier, has taken a wrong turn. In 20 years we’ve gone from the simplicity of MacPaint to Photoshop. While the first fostered a creative explosion, the second gave birth to an industry of how-to books and classes. And such complexity is commonplace, Dr. Maeda says,” Scanlon reports.

“The Windows operating system is a case in point. According to Gary McGraw, chief technology officer at the software consultant Cigital, the 2000 version of Windows had 20 million lines of source code. XP, released in 2001, had 40 million – a doubling in less than two years. Critics of such complexity have offered myriad solutions. Writing about the “threshold of frustration,” Bill Buxton, a former chief scientist at the graphics software maker Alias who now runs a consulting firm, called for engineers to focus less on technology and more on who, what, when, where, why – that is, how it’s being used,” Scanlon reports.

After the first year of The Simplicity Design Workshop, some tenets of simplicity have emerged:
1. Heed cultural patterns. The iPod, for instance, succeeded not just because of its sleek form, but because, in conjunction with iTunes, it solved so many of the problems of buying and storing music.
2. Be transparent. People like to have a mental model of how things work.
3. Edit. Simplicity hinges as much on cutting nonessential features as on adding helpful ones, the Newton MessagePad and the Palm Pilot being prime examples.
4. Prototype. Push beyond proof-of-technology demos and build prototypes that people can interact with.



  1. Tom,
    You say “People in teh real world don’t give a crap about
    how many lines of code something has… they only care if
    it works.”

    Yes, typical PC user attitude. Just one example:
    Someone complained that his new very high speed printer took
    some 15 minutes to print a few PowerPoint slides.
    I volunteered to have a look at his PostScript file.
    Selected one page that took 90 seconds of printer CPU time
    and was over 12,000 lines long.

    I wrote a PostScript program to do the same job. It took
    some 0.2 sec CPU time and was 30 lines long, including

    Certainly the original PS file “worked”, but all over the
    world people are waiting and waiting beside printers and
    wonder whether they could draw these slides by hand faster
    than a printer with 100-400 millions of instructions per sec
    can do.

    The other side of the story of course is that bloat sells
    new and new printers for those who only care about whether
    the stuff “works”.
    Also, it is good for social intercourse. People around
    printers having coffee, a bit of gossip, etc, perfectly
    legitimately. They just wait and wait for bloatware to “work”.


  2. i have seen John Maeda speak publicly on many occassions, and talked with him several times. he’s a brilliant guy – very together, coherent, and professional, like most of the other individuals that make up the MIT Media Lab.

    the doctrine of simplicity that Maeda has put forth is one that i live by every day, and everything i design has simplicity as the ultimate goal. i wish people would stop making stupid analogies about cars and grandmas and Apple computers. simplicity and complexity are not mutually exclusive.

    Mac OS X is getting its share of software bloat these days. i was never a Mac fan before OS X and i don’t like OS 9 at all. i do prefer the interface to Microsoft Windows in most cases, but i still wish the interface was more simple. i agree with Jef Raskin, the father of the Mac, who recently commented that the Mac interface had become very similar to Microsoft Windows. i wish the designers of operating systems could wash all the crap out of their brains and start over – we are all immersed in a sea of user interface garbage and hidden functionality. it doesn’t have to be like this… but it will stay this way for a long time. it’s also sad to see so many Linux distributions that are simply rip-offs of the Mac and Windows interfaces.

    by the way, i’m not your Ford-driving grandma – i do architectural rendering, programming in OpenGL/PHP/XML, and i’ve also written my own music sequencing software. many of the applications i use are exceedingly complex and actually get in the way of getting work done, rather than speeding up my work. every software designer should do himself a favor and take Maeda’s comments seriously. decades from now, computers are going to be running such massive mountains of code that nobody will be able to translate it all or understand how it works. we need to throw everything away and start over.

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