The future of features

The travel industry is very fond of the word feature. Every restaurant and bar, every weightlifting room and sauna in any of the Caribbean resorts is a feature, and the travel planner's small print will inevitably say, “No refunds for unused features.” Of course, we will usually go to the trouble of selecting our destination according to the sort of activity we want to get involved in: I'm not about to go to a golf resort for a vacation, for example.

But there are many places where we cannot select the product to suit our involvement. Just look at the word-processing application that I have open at this very minute. Generally speaking I want to open a new document, start typing, save the document and close the application. Several times a week my needs get more complicated because I have to put other people's work into a format that I can use, but that generally only requires a couple of keyboard actions that I have managed to learn. How many other features in that application will I never need? Thousands, I suspect.

Yes, I can hear you saying that someone out there — a more advanced user than myself, no doubt — will be using features that I would never know existed. But why should I be paying for a product that does far more than I am capable, or desirous, of using? The additional product development time and effort was at my cost, but not for my benefit.

There are similar parallels that can be drawn: I live in a city that is quite small, but we are fortunate to have a fully equipped hospital and a total of about 10 physicians. Apart from the city population there is a fairly large catchment area to draw patients from and we are fortunate to have a major tourist attraction in the form of a couple of dozen miles of 500 foot high sand dunes. Every summer they are filled with three- and four-wheel all-terrain vehicles. The combination of sharp fall-offs, lack of visibility over hills, inexperience, speed and alcohol keep our two ambulances quite busy. Unfortunately, more and more, these idiots are uninsured. They get treated, x-rayed, bound and patched up, stitched, etc., but people like me are carrying more and more of the costs.

There are also many parallels in our industry. Look at the products you use every day and think about the features that you don't use — but that you paid for. And think how the selling of those products is often based on the features you never end up wanting.

I'm as guilty as anyone else in approaching a sale that way, but we all know that the majority of products are set up for use in a particular arena and that's the way they stay. The reason those products influence us is because the engineer in us keeps escaping the bottle and going out of control. If we thought more about the operators of the equipment, we would demand simpler, cheaper equipment with far fewer features.

When you look at the rows of monitors in a control room, how many of them — in most applications — are working on different line standards, or different composite or baseband standards? When did you last see an operator look at anything but a vector display on a vectorscope? Or a two-line (or two-frame) display on a waveform monitor? Have you ever seen an operator use cursors on a waveform monitor to measure voltages? Probably not, but as engineers we look at products that do more than just give us a simple display. There is some kind of precise measurement instinct in us that is difficult to squash.

There certainly are reasons to look at equipment that may be easily switchable to DTV formats in the near future, but only if it is really in the “near” future for you. If you are two or more years away from such changeovers, you're probably over-paying for the flexibility you think you are getting.

Bigger things attract humans. The number of SUVs on the roads is a testament to how consumers can be fooled by size. What percentage of those vehicles ever leave a public road is imponderable, but small. What percentage of 4×4 trucks ever leave the road either? These are features we have no real need for, but people are paying for them every day.

If I ever get a four-wheel drive vehicle to go up the logging roads to my transmitter sites — instead of the slow climbs on foot — it will be a well-used, beat-up thing that I will be ashamed to leave parked in my driveway. But it will have the feature I most need. And its acquisition will allow me to have more pennies to spend on the features offered in that thatched resort in the Grand Caymans.

Paul McGoldrick is an industry consultant based on the West Coast.

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