inessential by Brent Simmons

Flexibility and power

Whenever I think about new (or old) features in software, I think about whether they’re flexibility or power features.

They’re different things. Flexibility is the ability to change how software works; power is the ability to do more with less effort.

There’s a complicated relationship between the two things. Sometimes flexibility may add to power — if I could just make these things green, my eye could pick them out more easily, and I’d get my work done more quickly.

But flexibility detracts from power just as often — or more often. Flexibility is an invitation. It says, “Hey, futz with this. And this. And this. You’re not getting anything done, but at least you kind of have the illusion of doing something.”

One thing I love about iPhone and iPad apps is that they have to be designed for power. There’s just not enough conceptual canvas space for a ton of flexibility.

And I think people who use software — which includes you and me and everybody reading this — are learning to value power over flexibility. In part because of iOS apps, and in part because our attentions are further disintegrated and we have less time for each app.

How many more apps do you use now than you did five years ago? You used to get by with email and chat — then you added Twitter and Facebook. And an iPhone and screenfuls of more apps. And an iPad and more screenfuls.

You don’t spend your time skinning your audio player anymore, in other words. You just play music. And you do other things while the music’s playing.

It may go against the grain a little bit, but I’ll say it: I’m incredibly excited for the future of Mac software. I don’t expect we’ll make software that looks and feels like iOS apps (we shouldn’t), but I do expect we’ll learn from iOS apps how power is the real goal, and that flexibility is just a tool to use exceedingly sparingly, only when it substantially increases power.