The Beauty of Tech is More than Skin Deep

In 2013, lots of new high-tech products came out that could revolutionize their respective fields. Logic dictates that we should be standing in awe at these crowning achievements, moving us ever closer to a future out of science fiction, but that’s just not happening. Before we even have a chance to put our hands on a new product, we are rushing to the comment section of our favorite tech blogs to call it out for being “ugly.”

Why are we so quick to despise a new idea or product, and for its looks of all things? Is it jealous budding inventors? Cynics scraping the bottom of the barrel for something to dislike? Website vandals seeing what they can get away with on an anonymous internet? Or is the popularity of internet retailers necessitating snap judgments based on a thumbnail?

For example: wearable tech really seems to be what the future looks like. Between Google Glass, GPS jackets, and even neck tattoo microphones, there are a multitude of wild, imaginative ways that tech companies are rethinking the way we live our daily lives. Whether you think their designs are perfect or not, it’s exciting to just think about how far technology has come, and what the future still holds.

One of the most talked about tech trends of 2013 was smartwatches, essentially, mini-smartphones that sit on your wrist. I’ve seen my share of sci-fi movies, and the wrist communicator is one of the most memorable tropes that come to mind. But for something that has only existed in our imaginations until earlier this year, there sure seem to be a lot of harsh words being spread about the look of these devices.

If you have to wear something, it should probably be marginally fashionable, but does it need to be more stylish than the phone in your pocket, or the computer at your desk? Compared to the first cell phones, or calculator watches from the 80’s, smartwatches from Samsung, Sony, and even the Kickstarter funded Pebble are unquestionably sleek and modern. Plus, they often come in enough colors that most people could find one they wouldn’t mind showing off.

Here’s the caveat about smart watches from my perspective: they aren’t yet standalone devices. Current smart watches only sync up with your smartphone. While I still think it’s an amazing idea, and an indicator of what's to come, I am not planning on paying $200-$300 so I don’t have to pull my phone out of my pocket. But if they looked prettier, that wouldn’t change. This is the smartwatch’s first at bat, and I don’t think anyone should expect a home run, but if you never acknowledge its potential it will never get any better.

Focusing on the "ugly" tells the manufacturer that you value looks over functionality, so when they release a new version, you run the risk of getting something that’s easier on the eyes, but might not actually work any better without a price premium. If we want smartwatches to become more useful anytime soon, we should be griping about the inside, not the outside.

This article looks at a prototype of an upcoming gaming console being developed by Valve called the Steam Machine. Their idea is to create a computer that lives in your living room, with a wireless controller as versatile and accurate as a keyboard and mouse, but suited for the couch.  The first reports of the available hardware are impressive, but one of its biggest selling points is the concept that you can buy a cheaper model, and swap in upgraded graphics cards, processors, and RAM later.

In my opinion, this concept has the capacity to give a big boost to PC hardware manufacturers, who are seeing increasingly low sales numbers. It could also make a lot more people thoughtful about what actually goes on inside of a computer, what each part does, and how it affects performance. But all that doesn't stop people from obsessing over the exterior.

If you can’t tell the difference between the PS4, Xbox One, and the Steam Machine by looking at them, you’re not alone. Gaming consoles have almost always been black/gray rectangles with a few blinking lights to tell you it’s on and it’s working. I don’t see any reason why Valve should be expected to fix what’s not broken. They’re clearly innovative in ways that are more important than aesthetics, but naysayers are still putting these products down based on a minor detail.

I am personally not a big fan of Apple products, but I will give them credit where credit is due: everything they make is stunningly beautiful. They are so flawless in design that countless PC makers have ripped off the island keyboards and sleek aluminum design of a Macbook Pro, and I don’t blame them. Beautiful design is Apple’s brand, I get that. What I dislike is that they can release the same phone in new colors and call it a new product (then again, Google is encouraging their fans to play dress up with their smartphones too). It worries me when we’ve reached the point that we’re not focusing on innovation, powerful hardware, and ease of use, but rather, how cool we will look when we pull it out at Starbucks.

However, Apple has done some things that have gotten my attention lately. They recently released Mavericks, an operating system update completely free of charge to anyone running a relatively recent version of OS X. Apple’s model for operating systems differs from Microsoft’s in that while Microsoft releases a new operating system every few years, and stops supporting them after more than a decade, Apple releases a new operating system every year, and requires users upgrade every few years. Granted, Apple’s operating systems have traditionally been less expensive, but it evens out when you consider the amount of time some people have been hanging on to their copies of XP, for example.

Offering a product that works better, and yes, looks better, for free is totally out of left field for Apple. Perhaps now that they’ve got their visual identity firmly cemented, they’re working on growing their customer base to people who can't always pay that premium for beauty. They’re also rumored to be developing their own wearable tech, but are smartly taking their time. I suspect they’re waiting to see what people want from wearable tech rather than rushing something to market to be on the heels of a trend. It’s also expected that whatever they come out with, it will have at least some power without being tethered to a smartphone sister. Additionally, they’ve been working on more advances that might only appeal to pseudo-techies like me: moving to 64-bit processors, even in their smartphones, and offering unlocked versions of their smartphones for example.

What does all this mean for nonprofit technology? I would suggest that if you’re looking for software or hardware for your office, ignore the visual appeal completely (unless it’s the tie breaker between two products). In a perfect world, everyone could outfit their entire office with beautiful, 27” iMacs, but the fact remains that those bulky PC desktops are generally cheaper to buy, fix, upgrade, and use in an everyday office setting. I would even suggest against any laptops unless you travel very frequently (again, they’re more expensive, harder to fix, and have a shorter life expectancy).

The same is true of software. While a donor management system, for example, might have pretty colors, well laid out navigation, and more fundraising speedometers than you could ever use, it doesn’t mean it is the right one for you. Sometimes the plainest system will have the set of features you need most, at the right price. If you need a new office suite, and you can get away with using Google Drive or OpenOffice, go for it. They might not look as nice as other options, but they’ll get you where you need to go for free. If you need a mobile website, but can't afford a full on responsive design overhaul, a simple but usable mobile site will be much better than a pretty one that doesn't work.

It’s easy to get distracted by fancy features, but if you’ll never use them, they are useless. Nonprofits have minimal technology budgets, and little time to waste, so they must prioritize what really matters. The next time you need to decide on a new purchase for your organization, repeat this mantra: “it doesn’t really matter what it looks like. It just has to work well.” Take those Amazon ratings to heart a little less, and ask for the opinion of people you trust. While I can’t say the internet trolls will ever stop focusing on whatever minor issue is most easily disliked that week, in the long term, tech companies will take notice.

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