Product designers take note
Who remembers the Kin?
If you wanted to view the Kin as a monument to the bunglefoonery of Steve Ballmer’s Microsoft, you wouldn’t be wrong, but you’d be missing a more important object lesson.
The Kin is what happens when you design a piece of technology to be “cool” rather than useful. Microsoft saw Apple and Facebook being the cool things in 2010 with their smartphone and their social network, so they made a “smartphone” that was “built for social media” but ended up being neither. The Kin was such a turd that it was withdrawn from the market in just 48 days and repositioned as a feature phone, like a RAZR or a Nokia brick.
ADD PART ABOUT COOLNESS
It’s easy to laugh at Microsoft and their desperate attempts to be hip, but what of those dogs who actually caught the car? What does being cool get you?
In the mid-2000s, Facebook got a taste of cool and it was like their first hit of meth. They stumbled onto the nascent millennial market as it was in its college years and became the sine qua non of participating in millennial culture. Facebook was so cool that their dweeb of a CEO got his own David Fincher movie with a soundtrack by Trent Reznor. That coolness was worth a $100 billion IPO less than a decade after Facebook launched.
But then the high began to wear off and the Mark Zuckerberg could feel the bugs crawling on him. By 2012, Facebook was no longer cool. The Applebee’s crowd had colonized the platform with their Farmville and their coffee humor and their chain letters. So they did what any rich junkie does. They used their vast wealth to keep getting their fix. That is what led to Facebook acquiring the newer, cooler Instagram, perhaps an even purer expression of whatever “millennial culture” aspired to be. That scratched the itch, but not for long. Facebook cannibalized the coolness of Instagram, making Instagram less cool in the process.
Instagram didn’t have any valuable technology that Facebook needed. They just had “coolness”. And the coolness really wasn’t transferable, as Facebook discovered. Facebook the company may have gotten to profit from Instagram’s hip status, but the Facebook product in no way became cooler. If anything, Instagram only underscored how uncool Facebook had become.
By the mid 2010s, millennial technology had already passed its peak of cultural relevance, meaning Facebook’s investment in Instagram’s coolness was depreciating. The entire lifestyle that millennial technology had been designed to cater to (or, rather, enforce) was becoming the subject of parody and derision. As soon as the Z-kiddies reached the “mock the previous generation” age, millennial cachet became a liability both culturally and on the balance sheet. Then, the twin plagues of COVID and TikTok finished off what was left of Facebook-cum-Meta’s coolness. One killed off their associated lifestyle for good and one captured the imagination of the latest youth generation.
Sure, Facebook and Instagram are still around, and they aren’t going to disappear any time soon, but they’re on a steady decline and there’s probably nothing they can do about it.
A rather shorter cautionary tale is that of Google Plus. In 2011, right as Facebook was at the peak of their upward momentum, public sentiment was beginning to turn against the company for the first time, less than a year after The Social Network came out. By this point, the practical case for a social network had been more than established, as had the profitability. It was perfectly logical for Google to want to exploit Facebook’s worsening reputation to usurp their throne. And Google were ideally positioned to do so.
Google had a massive user base they could reach at the push of a button, meaning they could ingest vast quantities of new users for their social network at a rate that even Facebook’s own meteoric first two years couldn’t hope to touch. Moreover, they could rapidly fold their various existing social networks into Plus. Orkut was already massively popular in Brazil and the YouTube comments section was and is an unacknowledged social networking platform in its own right. In the course of a single, well-timed blitz, Google Plus could have stolen Facebook’s entire userbase leaving only the Farmville moms.
Buuuut, they didn’t do that. Instead, once Plus was launched, people who joined the site (i.e. me) found that they had a limited quantity of invites they could send. This means that nobody could import anywhere near their entire social, making it completely impossible to have a clean break with Facebook. Instead, people came over in small batches, noticed that nobody else was around, and immediately went back to Facebook. The whole thing was over before it even began.
Why would Google hobble Plus like that? You already know the answer. They wanted Plus to be “cool”. And it can only be cool if not everybody gets in. They wanted their product to boast some douchey hipster exclusivity, as though that is what would guarantee its success. But, by 2011, social networks were an appliance, not a nightclub. Hipness was not going to help Plus. Even in 2005, Facebook only succeeded because it fulfilled a practical need for its users. The cool factor was just a multiplier. For Google, appealing to the worst kind of people would guarantee their failure, not their success. And that’s what it did.
The final example I have for you is a company that has managed to turn coolness into an academic discipline. Where Facebook borrowed their coolness from the zeitgeist, this company manufactures its own coolness. I am, of course, talking about Apple.
While they too originally mined coolness, in their case from the late-90s zeitgeist, Apple managed to find a way to breed coolness in captivity. Apple products were cool because they were Apple products. Their design was cool because it was designed the Apple way. Any competing brand that wanted to have a cool product had to design it the Apple way, but then it would only be a second-rate knock-off.
It’s crazy just how well Apple’s coolness works for them. The most clear illustration of this phenomenon is the infamous “green balloons”.
Messages sent from anything other than an iPhone are depicted as green speech balloons while those from an iPhone are blue. Ridiculous as it sounds, there is a social stigma around your messages coming through as green. This means that any completing platform that wants to position itself as premium and equal to Apple in terms of quality and exclusivity will find itself represented on iPhone screens as no different from a shitty Chinese phone running Android. And where are the consumers that such a new would-be luxury phone maker would be trying to court? Staring at their iPhone screens, of course.
And this is how Apple can market a phone for $1600 and still have people waiting in long lines outside their stores. They’re idiots, to be sure, but they’re idiots with $1600.
So is that it? Is it actually a good idea to chase coolness as long as you can actually find a way to make it a renewable resource? Apple figured it out, right? Just copy them, right?
Of course not.
The signs of cracks in Apple’s coolness are becoming increasingly evident. The most obvious of these is the slowdown in iPhone sales. It used to be that new Apple products carried an undercurrent of excitement with them, an anticipation of some new “magical” innovation that would set them apart from the dreary competitors. At this point, Apple are short on magical innovations. Every new iPhone is nothing more than a recitation of numbers which are all slightly higher than those on the previous model. That doesn’t get people hard. It’s not “cool”.
There can be no better example of Apple’s faltering aura than the upcoming Vision Pro, a $3500 AR/VR headset that precisely nobody is excited for. Given that mixed reality is the form factor of the future, one might expect Apple to be the company defining that form factor. But it’s clear from this vantage point that they will not be. There’s a real question in the air of if they will take part at all.
These ill winds have not escaped Apple’s notice. The company is quietly pivoting from a primary hardware manufacturer to a digital services provider that offers hardware as a way to sell more services. You know, the way printer companies practically give them away so they can sell you overpriced toner. That’s not cool. It’s not ever going to be cool. Once Apple fully adapts to this new economic model, the entire basis of their former coolness, their industrial design, will be moot. They’re going to have to compete on product quality alone. God help them.
Imagine having relied upon your coolness for almost three decades and then suddenly having to compete purely on product merit. It would be like hitting the wall at age 45 and having to attract a mate with your personality. Apple is finding itself in this situation. Coolness is toxic to good product designs.
Let’s go back to the Facebook example. While Facebook initially offered a meaningful benefit to its users — a spam-free social network with a clean UI and reliable codebase — it became the hip place to spend your time online. MySpace could not have simply booted the spammers and blocked custom code from running on users’ profiles, and expected to win back its users from Facebook. It was no longer cool. Facebook realized this.
In the years after they became “the only Ketchup”, Facebook promptly stopped endeavoring to make their product better. They allowed the ads whose absence had made the platform so appealing, and those ads became the basis of Facebook’s infamous attitude toward its users’ privacy. The Facebook user experience decayed steadily over the years until nobody could stand to use it.
Meanwhile, Instagram’s ratio of style to substance was even worse. All it was was a social photo sharing app that let you put dopey filters on your pictures. It served as a prestige product for Facebook where cheugy users could feel as though they were removed from the crassness of their primary platform all while still feeding data into the beast. But it’s not a very good product. To this day, its functionality on the web is limited compared to mobile, for no other reason than to maintain some soy hipster cred.
And then there’s Apple. Apple relied upon its flywheel of cool for so long that they really lost touch with reality. A company competing purely on its product merits would never have allowed the hockey puck mouse to become a thing:
And only a company that huffs its own farts could have thought THIS was a good idea:
Apple were so convinced that they were the supreme tastemakers that they came late to the Flat design party, showed up with an infantile looking set of icons that looked like they were made in MS Paint, and took credit for ending Skeuomorphism. And the thing is, they did get the credit for it because, as soon as Apple repudiated it, only then did leather stitches and coffee stains become anathema on user interfaces.
But coolness is antithetical to introspection. Apple have been making increasingly ridiculous products without having any of the necessary market feedback to correct their course. The iPhone itself was so cool that Apple made each subsequent iPhone even more iPhoney, regardless of the implications. iPhones (as well as smartphones in general, as a result) became wider and thinner until it became impossible for a human hand to properly hold them, and they are inexplicably made of slippery metal and glass so that they are easy to drop and shatter when they land. And they have no buttons.
Apple has steadfastly refused to copy its competitors even when they have a superior design. Android has a superior alarm clock app that Apple could copy in 30 minutes, but they don’t. Several phones have superior mute switches that travel lengthwise rather than depthwise. Apple refuses to copy them. The BlackBerry Z10 had a vastly superior autocomplete on its virtual keyboard, and yet Apple maintains the awful one they have had since the beginning.
Meanwhile, the rest of the industry is all too eager to copy Apple. So much of high tech hardware design is the result of Apple, and so much of Apple’s design is the result of it chasing its own tail. If Apple were competing in a purely rational market, it would never have gone so far down this road, and our devices would be a lot better designed.
Microsoft, for their part, seems to have learned from the Kin debacle. They have not since attempted to be cool or even relevant. They just deliver boring, unsexy digital services. While nobody is going to claim that Microsoft products are excellent, there is a floor of crappiness that they can’t sink through because they have to compete solely on left-brained virtues alone.
And, if we’re being honest, Microsoft’s lack of coolness has forced them to innovate and excel in areas where Apple has stagnated.
As far as I’m concerned, THIS:
is a hell of a lot cooler than THIS:
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Microsoft Kin, iPhone, and the perils of chasing hipness was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.