Dumbing down: the price of a good UX?

Microsoft has caught some grief this past week over the latest stage of the copy & paste debacle, a meme that began when Apple omitted the functionality from the iPhone (and took two years to add it in) and was resurrected upon the admission that Windows Phone 7 series wouldn't ship with the ability to snip text from one app and paste it into another. In fact, copy & paste is just one example of Microsoft locking down their new smartphone experience, slicing a great deal of OEM and user customisation out in the process. They're not the only firm to do so, however; merely the latest to seemingly decide that users want delineated – perhaps even prescriptive – experiences rather than flexibility.

Poster-child, in fact, for this sort of tightly reined UX is the iPhone, and we can only imagine that there's some snickering going on at Cupertino over their rival's change of approach. Windows Mobile used to be the go-to guy for flexibility in smartphones: yes, it didn't look that hot in its native state, but if you wanted to whip up an app that accessed – or merely wanted to play with – the core elements of the device then Microsoft made little attempt to stand in your way. It's become a hotbed of ROM tinkering and modification, everything from changing LED blink patterns to completely reworked builds that streamline just about every element of the phone; the sort of things Android modders are doing now, their Windows Mobile counterparts were doing for years before.

Another good example is the iPad. As we've commented before, listening to the media reception of Apple's imminent tablet, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was the first such device in the world, not the latest touchscreen device in a segment that goes back years. What seems to have commentators – and, judging by pre-sale estimates, would-be owners – excited is the though of what Apple can do to turn "another computer to maintain" into a headache-free appliance. If you already have a main computer – whether desktop or notebook – and maybe a netbook as well, the last thing you want is to add in another machine to look after, take care of with software updates and anti-spyware scans, coddle as anything more than, yes, an oversized iPod touch.

On the other side of the apparent divide are devices like Nokia's N900, a handset that – out of the box – can border on the frustrating. The N900 lacks the instant-reward of other recent handsets, which bend over backward to offer the extent of their functionality within a finger's reach. Instead, the Nokia is making a name for itself among those who want to experiment with their mobile devices, loading up non-standard platforms, hooking up unusual hardware and generally carrying across some of that desktop tinkering paradigm to the mobile space.

Of course, you can't blame manufacturers for wanting to control their user experience. For all the good work HTC and others have done with modifying the Windows Mobile 6.x UI, Microsoft still catch grief from reviewers and owners alike for encouraging UX fragmentation. With Apple storming ahead in the smartphone segment it's hard to criticise Microsoft for not following their example and locking down some of the areas which have previously turned round and bit them. Meanwhile the so-called flexible – challenging? – devices like the N900 are never expected to be a dramatic sales success.

There's a common misconception that the tech-aware – the sort of people who read this site and who keep up with cutting-edge developments; the early-adopters, perhaps – are the audience for complex devices, simultaneously blinkered to the demands of the mainstream. It's a false distinction: everyone is "guilty" of wanting a device that "just works". Yes, some users might also want an extra degree of flexibility – to modify, tweak or generally step outside of the manufacturer's expectations of what the device might be useful for – but there's an assumption nonetheless that the core functionality will be rock solid.

Has that expectation forced devices to dumb-down? Perhaps – it's certainly one way of ensuring the basics are addressed – but to be fair that seems to be the way many consumers prefer it. An application store packed with titles is all well and good, until one of them goes wrong and wipes out your address book. Developers are having to become cleverer at dealing with more rigid third-party software guidelines; sometimes that's for good reasons, like sandboxing apps to prevent one crash bringing down the whole system, and sometimes for not so great reasons, like blanket limitations on background processes. There's dumbed-down and there's just plain dumb; it remains to be seen whether asking for a stable user experience has in fact left us with less choice overall.