The goodness/adoption paradox

The goodness/adoption paradox surfaces if, for fun, we separate goodness (from the expert’s point of view) from the factors that drive adoption. From the expert point of view, better technologies existed for publishing and networking than Tim Berners-Lee’s Web. Ted Nelson and Doug Engelbart talked about and demoed them for decades. But those “better” ideas were demandind in ways that would have raised barriers to adoption in 1991. At best they would have cost more to build and taken more time to engineer. We can’t know whether those additional barriers would have prevented the Web from succeeding or merely change its ascension. It’s also possible these alternative web designs might have had advantages that Berners-Lee’s Web didn’t have, which would have positively impacted adoption.

As I was watching and writing about Bill Buxton’s talk on ubiquitous computing, I had Scott Berkun’s idea of the goodness/adoption paradox from The Myths of Innovation in the back of my mind. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why, but I now think it was the idea of seamless transitions. In Buxton’s narrative of getting out of a car, the transition from voice control to a user interface was certainly seamless. Another example I can think of is having a thermostat change the temperature of your house as you get closer to home (PDF).

But I can think of other examples that aren’t so seamless, but do help ease transitions. Netflix, for example, lets me pick up where I left off when I move from my phone to my computer. Dropbox helps me move files between devices and platforms with ease. While both of these transitions are better than they were before, I don’t think that either of them are seamless. On the contrary, I’d say they are decidedly seamful. In fact, I’d say that Dropbox places itself right along the seam between different platforms. I’d also say that it’s seamfulness is exactly what makes it superior to a seamless solution like iCloud. Dropbox makes it absolutely clear what is going on: it exposes the seam. With iCloud what is being synced is so seamless that I have to idea what is backed up (or indeed how I recover that data when I upgrade my device).

These aren’t seamless transitions. Perhaps they’re not seamless because they’ve placed themselves where there was a gaping hole previously. Perhaps that will change, but I still think there is something to be said for the idea of seamfulness. I don’t think it’s the same as an intrusion. While the transition in the case of both Netflix and Dropbox may be obvious, it certainly doesn’t feel intrusive to me.

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