This recent article in Wired made me think about the [UC Berkeley Library’s] New Directions project, and specifically about how we might rethink some of our library’s paradigms.
Essentially, the article talks about how Apple got into the cell phone business and turned it upside down. Traditionally, telecommunications providers have run the industry, and handset manufacturers have had very little power. Handsets (i.e. the phones themselves) are bait-and-switch devices, massively subsidized by the telecommunications companies, who then make big profits off the contracts that customers sign. The features available on handsets haven’t been driven by creative thinking at the manufacturer, but by what the wireless carriers have decided they want to support.
The iPhone, obviously, is a very different animal. It’s elegant, user-friendly, multi-purpose, and highly desirable. Apple designed it that way to protect their business interests. And they did a good job; people will pay a lot of money for an iPhone.
The iPhone wasn’t Apple’s first cell phone, though. Their first stab at the market was a partnership with Motorola, to create the ROKR, a cell phone that also played digital tunes. It looked like this:
It only held 100 songs, even if it had storage space for more. And to upload songs, you had to connect it to your computer. Last but not least, as the Wired article puts it, it looks like it was designed by a committee.
Not many people bought the ROKR.
Compare with the iPhone, which looks like this:
Beautiful, right? It has multiple applications, a terrific user interface, it’s a pleasure to hold and use, it stores up to (I think) 8 GB of music, which it downloads wirelessly from the iTunes store–no need to plug it into your computer.
People are very happy to buy and use the iPhone.
To me, this is a parable about user-centered design. Basically, I think libraries have a tradition of behaving like wireless carriers–we’ve had enough power, prestige, capital (socially, physically, and economically) to afford to ignore our users. We have a habit of designing by committee, according to our own interests.
Google, on the other hand, is market-driven. Is it any surprise that people feel very differently about Google than they do about the library? And if we continue to work like the ROKRs of the information world, will it be any surprise when the iPhone overtakes us and leaves us in its dust?