Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Feature Complete vs. Complete Features

I used to use a Windows Mobile 6 phone. It was very expensive and had every bell and whistle there was. Unfortunately, it was a terrible, horrible phone. Why? Because it was awful at everything/good at nothing.

On paper, it was pretty sweet—feature complete—but in reality it could barely make phone calls.

In contrast, the iPhone was a less capable device on paper, but a far superior choice in reality.

As a business software developer, I see how this can happen. When a project is under strain, there’s pressure to implement the bare minimum to meet the feature’s requirements and put off less tangible things like a good user experience for the next version.

But of course that next version has its own pressure. If you don’t constantly apply pressure to improve usability—a difficult to measure, but critical feature—your product will falter. That is, you can increase a product’s feature set by throwing more and more into it to make it look better on matrix comparisons, but this will come at the expense of the actual product as a whole.

Think back to the original iPhone. Apple introduced it’s first phone into a stable market owned by big names like Windows, Palm and RIM/Blackberry. This first iPhone lacked a lot of features I bet most would have considered show stoppers:

  • Copy/paste
  • Old network technology (Edge vs. 3g)
  • Poor battery life; non-replaceable battery
  • And plenty of other significant problems:

  • No keypad
  • Very expensive ($400-$600+)
  • Legendarily poor call quality
  • Weak specs (processor/memory/camera)
  • Rather than cobble together crappy solutions to these limitations, Apple focused on nailing its key features: a killer UI and a full blown web browser. People went crazy for it and they kept coming back year after year:


    (I know they sell other stuff, too)

    Apple captured the market with a holistically better device and waited to release non-core functionality like copy-paste until they could give it the attention it needed. With the possible exception of call quality, they have since addressed all the issues I listed above and brought awesome new things to the mobile world like the highly lucrative AppStore.

    I’ve come to develop a lot of respect for companies/projects/people that show restraint when building things instead of adding whatever random people ask for or what looks neat. This is why I now realize how important mission statements are—not just for a business but for a product. You need something to guide your decisions when relentless uncertainty arises.

    At a recent internal product launch at Rovisys I was quoted in a presentation as having said “you can do anything with software.” I insisted that the slide be revised to include the rest of my sentence:

    “You can do anything with software but that doesn’t mean you should.”