21st Century Yardwork

Posted: April 3, 2005 in Uncategorized

Just to give you a warning in advance: this is something of an essay on technology. No personal revelations or glimpses into my soul here. Feel free to move along to something else if this holds no interest for you. I’ll understand completely.


My lawnmower holds a special level of esteem for me. This thing has taken years of abuse, weathered multiple winters virtually unprotected, been subjected to more abusive obstacles than a contender on a Japanese gameshow, and yet it roars away, making all grass before it its bitch.

Yesterday, necessity overcame my loathing for yardwork as my lawn was on the verge of being declared a protected old growth forest. But, having sat for months on end through rain and cold, my mower protested, and eventually told me it wanted a little more attention by letting the pullcord snap off in my hand. However after some careful exploratory dismantling and reassembly, it roared back to life like Travolta’s career circa Pulp Fiction.

As a geek, this kind of accessability and function represents to me a crowning goal in the paradigm of technology. Not only does it provide its advertised function unwaveringly, but it does so having withstood substantial abuse. Its simplicity and open architecture also makes it highly accessible, yet requiring next to no knowledge of its functional specs to be usable. And its simplicity makes for an extremely accessible price point.

That’s right, I’m setting a lawn mower as an example for the entire tech industry. Work with me here.

The functional goal is the key here. This mower makes no bones about being anything but a mower. It doesn’t mulch, it doesn’t bag, it doesn’t edge, it doesn’t push itself for you to prevent chronic strain of something or other. It runs, it cuts grass, it spits it out of the way. Done deal. I don’t need these extra things. They may save me some work, but ultimately, I’m perfectly fine with raking and pushing. When it comes down to it, I’d rather it start every time and require little to no maintenance than spare me 30 minutes of work. These days, the commercial market is saturated with equipment that either is designed with as many bells and whistles as possible, or is at least made to look like it. But ultimately, all the average consumer wants or uses is the basic functionality.

Apple computers, as much as they are ridiculed by hardcore users, have made a niche market out of this kind of simplicity. Few plugs, simple peripherals, and an even simpler interface made it a powerhouse in the market for average users during the 1980s. However, closed standards and its insistance at ignoring the direction of the market drove it to the bottom of the barrel, which it’s only now starting to recover from.

As was the case yesterday, no technology is infallible. Wear and tear, especially with things involved in physical labor, is a fact of life. However, the fact that I, with virtually no functional knowledge of what I was doing, was able to disassemble, clean, and reassemble the fuel and filtration system makes this piece of equipment all the more desirable. In the event of a failure, this kind of simplicity allows for repairs that are easily executed, either by the owner or quickly and cheaply by a professional. This same simplicity opens it to modification by the hardcore (I, personally, am happy to leave my mower in its original state, but you get the idea).

Obviously this isn’t a universal model, and there will always be a market for luxury items where the bells and whistles are the point. But “applicances”, such as Tivos and game consoles are gaining popularity for their very simple, single-minded purpose. However, the one area they still lack is their accessibility. Aftermarket “hacks” to increase functionality are rarely welcomed by the manufacturer, and often attempts are made to thwart them, but this kind of accessibility can put a device far above its competitors. Designing a basic, utilitarian device with the option of user expansion (aka open source or extensive SDKs) can bring together both simplistic consumer appeal and extensive customization.

Because really, I just want to mow my lawn without the on-board computer telling me what the optimal grass height is. But someone probably does.

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Comments
  1. I think I am in the same vibe
    Yeah, I totally get what your saying. I think in part I am feeling the same way and wonder is it us growing older, or as a whole is the “Geek” culture maturing and looking to just have things that work.
    ME? I am selling stuff left and right on Ebay. To get ride of clutter but to also simplify my life. I just want things that work and nothing more.

    • Reuben says:

      Re: I think I am in the same vibe
      For me, getting tired of tinkering with something just to get it to work is definitely part of it, but I’m also just tired of companies trying to dictate the market and direction for their devices.
      I think anymore tech is becoming ingrained enough into daily life that people have gathered what it can do for them, and what else they would like to see. While this could lower the intial margin of profitability, it could also open the field for modular postsales by the manufacturer and any licensing fees and “manufacturer certification” from 3rd party commercial add-on vendors under non-GPL licensed products.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I think I am in the same vibe

    Yeah, I totally get what your saying. I think in part I am feeling the same way and wonder is it us growing older, or as a whole is the “Geek” culture maturing and looking to just have things that work.

    ME? I am selling stuff left and right on Ebay. To get ride of clutter but to also simplify my life. I just want things that work and nothing more.

    • Anonymous says:

      Re: I think I am in the same vibe

      For me, getting tired of tinkering with something just to get it to work is definitely part of it, but I’m also just tired of companies trying to dictate the market and direction for their devices.

      I think anymore tech is becoming ingrained enough into daily life that people have gathered what it can do for them, and what else they would like to see. While this could lower the intial margin of profitability, it could also open the field for modular postsales by the manufacturer and any licensing fees and “manufacturer certification” from 3rd party commercial add-on vendors under non-GPL licensed products.

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