Amazon and Apple got into a spat a few weeks ago over “lossless” audio files. I didn’t know what they were, either. They’re high-quality digital songs that most people can’t distinguish from regular versions. Likewise, the newest features in smartphone software sound smart, but I wonder how many people will take advantage of them and tailor iMessage notifications for their boss. One of Apple’s newest features is for the 18 people who want to use the same keyboard to control an iPad and Mac at the same time.
Please don’t yell at me! I know that some people care passionately about stuff like this, and it makes sense for tech companies to cater to them. Companies also constantly improve their products in ways that are relevant for both the tech-savvy 1 percent and everyone else. But I can’t help thinking that it would be better for tech companies and us if they focused more of their energy and marketing muscle on what matters to the 99 percent of people who use technology.
Smartphones are one of the most mass-market products ever made. What do lots of people want from their phone? A cool look, simplicity, longer battery life, low costs for the device and internet surfing, and better resistance to our clumsiness. But the hot marketing pitch for smartphones in the United States has been their ability to connect to 5G cellular internet networks, which most Americans can’t access and might not need at all for a long time.
When Apple devotes all of its TV commercials to its phones being dropped into toilets, then you’ll know that the industry is thinking about the 99 percent. I loved this list from The Verge in 2019 of all the things that the tech industry assumes that everyone knows but most humans do not. Normal people do not know how Facebook ads are targeted at them, why Bluetooth is so flaky (or what Bluetooth is), or whether they need to buy extra storage on their phones as Apple keeps nagging them about. “It’s a crucial reminder of an important fact I think the entire tech industry forgets constantly,” Nilay Patel wrote in that 2019 article. “Most people have no idea how anything actually works, and are already hopelessly confused by the tech they have.”
Most people don’t have the time and brain space to care about anything other than the basics of using their phone, computer, television set or other bare necessities and apps. And that’s perfectly OK and normal. What’s not OK is that the biggest and richest companies on the planet often don’t cater to those needs. Technology companies should continue coming up with cutting-edge advances. But the balance seems off between the new, wow stuff, and what most people actually need.
Tech companies should also stop pretending that normal humans will dig into complex privacy controls. That might mean baby monitors shouldn’t come with passwords that criminals can easily find online, and Amazon shouldn’t automatically turn people’s home gadgets into a shared internet network. Technology companies should hire chief normality officers to make sure that gadgets, apps and software are needed by and usable for the 99 percent. It is really hard to make things easy and cater to the needs of millions or billions of people. The first step is to remember that technology is supposed to be for everyone.
Ovide is a tech writer for NYT©2021
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