17 January, 2007

My Function Diet Thwarted Yet Again

Have you noticed how hard it is to buy gadgets and appliances that are simple enough actually to suit your needs? I’ve come across it often in the past couple of years. For example, trying to buy a mobile phone without web browsing, an 8 megapixel camera, GPS and an MP3 player is almost impossible now. And when you say to the twelve-year-old girl in the shop that you just want a phone with which you can make phone calls and nothing else, she looks at you in confusion, trying to decide if you’re just too senile to cope with all this complexity, or if you belong to some kind of fundamentalist cult that prohibits taking videos while you surf the web for polyphonic ringtones.

I had the same problem trying to get an MP3 player. The couple of basic features I wanted could only be had in conjunction with a plethora of completely useless ones that I would never use.

And then, this week, our microwave oven gave a last grunt and died. Now, I’m not a big microwave cookery fan – and neither is Wifie. We tend to use it to heat things up and that’s it. But can you buy a microwave oven that does just this? Can you heckers like! No, they’ve all got onboard computers and inbuilt sensors and ‘inverter technology’. (Whatever the heck that is! Maybe it flips your eggs for you.) So one ends up buying something with 15 defrost programmes and more buttons than the Starship Enterprise.

Actually, in the case of the microwave, it was pretty easy once we’d discovered that we couldn’t get what we wanted. We just bought another Sharp just like the last one (since they were still making them) on the grounds that the last one had lasted 10 years so had probably been good value even if we didn’t use nine tenths of its functions.

It could be that each different person going into a shop wants a different, small set of functions from each type of appliance but I doubt it, somehow. What I suspect is that people feel they’re getting more for their money if the gadget has got more stupid things that it does. In fact, not only are most of these functions stupid but the more stupid the better. Can anybody really say it makes sense to watch television on a mobile phone screen? No. Or to surf the Web? No, again. So why buy it this rubbish?

It's like when you go into an everyday sort of restaurant, nothing fancy, have you noticed that the servings are enormous? While the chaps usually plough their way through, the ladies tend to leave quite a bit. It seemed odd to me that restaurants would sell you more food than you can reasonably eat – or that people would pay for that much. Then I realised one day that they do it on purpose so that you feel you’ve got a generous serving in return for your money. It’s a marginal extra cost for the restaurant owner to do this, so it doesn’t inflate the price of the meal much, and the benefit in customer perception is well worth it. Well, I think it’s the same with all this additional functionality in household gadgets. The customer likes to think they’ve got a big plateful of technology – even if they can’t eat it all.

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