Apple's iPhone illustrates 'feature creep' scourge


Apple's iPhone illustrates 'feature creep' scourge by Chris JohnstonThe arrival of the iPhone is the latest example of the upgrade cycle that drives our consumer society. It promises the latest in features and technology. It is quite possible there has never been so much excitement over a phone before. The new features it promises, whether we need them or not, are the hook used to capture new customers. But do we need these features, and will we use them?

In a world in which we already have too much ‘stuff’, it is questionable whether we are really improving the quality of our life by persisting with the cycle of upgrades that manufacturers stimulate. The number of ‘early adopters’ out there — those people who have to have the latest and greatest — seems to grow exponentially.

Writing in the New Yorker in late May, James Surowiecki described a phenomenon he called ‘feature creep’. Feature creep is the stealthy (and sometimes not so stealthy) proliferation of extra functions on a given device. Mobile phones are a prime example.

Originally they were used to make phone calls. Then they could send text messages. Then they had cameras. Then infrared, Bluetooth, internet access, keyboards, a personal music player. Next, according to Nokia, will be a Global Positioning System (GPS) installed in every device, so we know where we are, and can track our friends too.

The iPhone, as far as these things go, is actually not as feature-rich as some devices. Reviewers have noted that the iPhone has 'only' 16 functions. But will people actually use all 16 of these functions?

The build-up to the iPhone launch was overwrought. First there were rumours at Macworld, Apple's annual gathering of developers. Then iPhone was announced in January by Apple CEO Steve Jobs at MacWorld. Then there was a pre-release build up. Then the ‘final week’ build up. Then, finally, exaltation!, as pictures emerge of ecstatic early adopters rushing into and out of stores.

Apple's iPhone illustrates 'feature creep' scourgeSome critics declared that it was the near-perfect phone. Steve Jobs declared, "[The] iPhone is like having your life in your pocket." Perhaps for some people Nirvana is attained by having access to music and an address book at the same time. But if this is so, what does it say about one's life? One wonders how long it will be before the "Man declares love, marries iPhone" headline appears in browsers and papers everywhere (with accompanying footage of said man listening to his betrothed as he walks up the aisle).

Surowiecki quoted a University of Michigan report that says, on average, Americans who have returned a product they found too complicated had spent an average of 20 minutes with the device before giving up. People are willing to pay for extra features, because they feel short changed if they don’t get them — whether they use them or not.

The second problem to arise from feature creep is directly related to the first. Once lured by the promise of extra functions, it is almost inevitable that new accessories will be needed. Manufacturers, as a rule, change the specifications, shapes and sizes of their products. This is arguably because little money is made on the handsets. That headset, second charger and screen protector all add up to a generous second pay day. According to a Reuters/ZDnet report, consumers spend around $A1.16billion a year on accessories for iPods. The figure for mobile phones is around 30 times this amount.

Then there is the e-waste. Mountains of it. The waste generated by product turnover is increased by accessory turnover. Mobile phone chargers are the best example. When Nokia changed charger sizes, millions and millions of people were left with near-useless lumps of plastic. Some countries are now legislating against this opportunism — China has mandated that all new phones must use the same charger from July 2007.

While a frenzied ‘crackberry’ user (he’s the guy on the train developing a second set of thumbs) will swear by his ‘productivity device’, and a 15-year-old school student may treasure those happy snaps on her phone, for most of us these features are more than we will ever need. Do we really need to be on email 24 hours a day? Is it so important to be able to send photos wirelessly to each other? At what point do we say enough?

Feature creep, coupled with the advertising campaigns and hype which encourage consumption, perpetuates and sustains the upgrade cycle that is swallowing the resources of this planet. While the iPhone may be the best mobile phone ever made, do we actually need it?



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Existing comments

Every person who has evoked incredulity when explaining that she doesn't need a ten-speed mountain bike to ride to the milk-bar will thank you for this article, James. Let's keep saying this, even if we are a tiny minority.
Gwynith Young | 12 July 2007

Fundamental to driving on the information super highway is the capacity to afford a vehicle. Feature creep and technological poverty should be of concern to a knowledge economy. With occupational superannuation now acounting for over 1 trillion (one thousand billion) dollars in Australia, why is the expenditure of 100 Billion on fibre to the home such a problem? Time for Governments - State and Federal - to 'get with the programme. Build the access to information and provide access at minimal cost to all.
Philip Marchionni | 12 July 2007

I love feature creep. Constant innovation in technology has made it part of our everyday lives. Mobile technology advances are particularly exciting with internet, GPS, video and who knows what else, we have instant access to everything. Anybody who has lost or forgotten a mobile at home, will know that sickening feeling of not being contactable and not being able to contact others. The one thing I do object to is how vendors over-promise what their technology can do. I’ll probably get an iPhone if nothing better comes along!
Christian Townsend | 16 July 2007

As the owner of an 'antique' mobile phone, I find its ability to only make and receive calls and text messages perfectly adequate. I do not need any other facilities to make me feel 'connected' to the world; in fact, I could live quite well without a phone, as I did before they were invented.
I also have no desire to own an iPod. If the tinny sounds I hear emanating from them are indicative of their sound 'quality', then give me a CD any day.
Before the word "Luddite" gets thrown at me, let me just say that, as a photographic artist, I have welcomed Adobe Photoshop with open arms; it puts the tradtional darkroom in the shade, so to speak.
John Watts | 31 August 2007


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