Less is More…what’s so hard about simplicity?

I am continuing to process Made To Stick, a Guns, Germs, and Steel-quality treatment about why some ideas survive and others die. I heard the authors interviewed courtesy of our local National Public Radio affiliate WUNC (which does their share of great content generation, btw), and to fit the ultra-dense format of radio, they said “there are six success factors for making an idea stick, but the first three, Simple, Unexpected, and Concrete, are the most important.”

As the authors tell it, experts suffer from The Curse of Knowledge, and the nature of the curse is such that it is almost impossible for those so cursed to keep things simple or, for that matter, concrete. Complexity is fun, and abstraction is what gives theories their power. It also makes them notoriously transient in people’s minds.

Last year, I read an interesting article by Peter Gutman about ways in which a proprietary software vendor chose to make their platform unbelievably complex while, at the same time, making it impossible for the most casual user to enjoy the most expected reward of buying a computer: the reasonable certainty that bits are bits, and that digital information, once loaded, would be forever preserved in its pristine state until deleted or intentionally altered. Titled A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection, the paper presents the ways in which a technically infeasible objective (digital restrictions management) essentially sinks nearly all other technically feasible objectives, ranging from managing a digital jukebox of your own music to using digital imaging to evaluate medical X-rays. Such an approach threatens the very concept of a general-purpose computer!

By contrast, the open source model, which includes full transparency and the user’s right to choose, provides a platform in which radical simplicity is possible. The freedom to strip any and all unncessary functionality (including functionality that users judge noxious) has fueled tremendous growth in embedded open source applications. The radical choices of what features will or will not be avilable has led to a revolution of modularity–a perfect antecedant for repartitioning applications around service oriented architectures and virtualization without fear that the underlying platform will change in unknowable or uncontrollable ways.

Vendor lock-in is not sticky–it’s stifling. At a time when proprietary complexity is driving implementation costs up and reliability down (and making capital expenditures more of a cost than an investment), open source offers the potential for a large dose of simplicity. Moreover, more simplicity means lower barriers to entry, which in turn means greater economic opportunity for a larger number of people, globally. And the ability for people to simply get the job done and share their stories, good and bad without fear of recrimination makes open source sticky, in a good way, a way that breeds and nurtures new ideas to grow and thrive.