This is the Modem World: Everything is over-designed -- everything

Joshua Fruhlinger
J. Fruhlinger|09.20.13

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Joshua Fruhlinger
September 20th, 2013
This is the Modem World: Everything is over-designed -- everything

Each week Joshua Fruhlinger contributes This is the Modem World, a column dedicated to exploring the culture of consumer technology.

I had a conversation with a friend today about the upcoming PS4 birth. We're both crazy excited about getting the new console come November. I mean, what's better than a brand-new box of electronics delivered via UPS on a sick day? Seriously, what's better?

I'll wait.

As stoked as I am to take on the brand-new, fresh PS4, something looms in my mind based on years of watching my favorite wads of silicon eventually spoiled by marketers, salespeople and time. When a product first launches, it's pure, even innocent, like a newborn baby. The interface is well-researched, even quirky, and the manufacturer is compelled to leave it as it is: a cute little thing with tons of promise. One look at my PS3 today compared to what it was like when it launched confirms this.

Everyone loves an adorable baby. Eventually, it grows hair, sprouts a personality and turns into a complex individual that begs pause. It might be a wonderful adult, but it's certainly not as simple and innocent and cute as its former self.

But electronics aren't people. So I have to ask: Why do we have to add stuff? Why can't we leave it as is? The original iPhone, as simple as it was, was just that: quick, easy to use and it just made phone calls and browsed the web. I still have mine and I turned it on the other day. No Retina display, no apps, no LTE, but it runs quickly and solidly, like an old truck with no electronics.

But now we have myriad apps, tons of push notifications that you can't turn off, productivity apps that beg you to get stuff done when you're just trying to capture what's happening around you and camera apps that promise to do more than what they're designed to do. It's... well, it's weird.

And what happened to the YouTube app? It used to just be a search field and a video player. But now videos stick around, play in the background and won't go away until you swipe them. There's more stuff than there is video, and the last I checked, YouTube is supposed to be all about video.

Products get old and their manufacturers do whatever they can to keep them relevant via software updates and third-party support. What ends up happening, though, is they become monstrosities of patches and tweaks that undermine the elegance of the launch version. It used to be that a gadget was just that: it did what it did and we either loved it or hated it.

But now, with firmware updates and our admittedly incessant need to get constant updates that reflect the latest trends in gesture whatsit, we've reached the point that devices end up as bloated, over-mature versions of their previous selves that imitate what we thought we wanted, but are, in reality, juiced-up athletes that ruin the game. When these sacred devices first hit the market, they were -- assuming they were the good ones -- optimized machines of glory that didn't care if market reception was cruising along at a steady pace. They just were.

Sometimes software updates and additions are good and necessary, but most of the time, they're chunks of fat that result in bloated devices that lose their magic and become obstacle courses filled with spam and opt-ins.

So, please excuse me as I go download iOS 7 for my old iPhone.

Joshua Fruhlinger is the former Editorial Director for Engadget and current contributor to both Engadget and the Wall Street Journal. You can find him on Twitter at @fruhlinger.

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