Can Silicon Valley write software for the 'normal'?

Most people don't fixate on technology the way Silicon Valley does. Its point of view makes it harder to create easy-to-use tech for those unfamiliar with terms like cloud computing.

Apple gets a fair amount of criticism for its supposed elitism, but Apple products reveal the opposite: they're made for normal people who generally don't obsess about technology. For all the beauty of its designs, the real reason Apple succeeds is simplicity. Apple takes complex technologies and makes them easy to use.

Normal people can use Apple technologies without ever opening a manual.

What's amazing is that Apple manages to do this from the heart of Silicon Valley, a place that lives and breathes technology and, hence, conveniently forgets that approximately no other human beings on the planet share this character trait.

Don't believe me? Check out this video, right, from Google. Google went to New York's Times Square to ask people a very simple question: "What is a browser?" The answers are very revealing:

Ignorant buffoons, right? Wrong. These people are simply "normal." It's the state of being in which technology is thought of as a tool to get things done, not as something to worship.

These same average Americans (76 percent of them, at least) haven't a clue what cloud computing means (if they've heard of it at all), according to a Microsoft-commissioned survey (Word document) conducted in January by Penn, Schoen & Berland. They just want technology to work for them, not vice versa.

Amazon.com's Kindle is popular because it just works. The iPhone is a winner because it's beautiful and...just works. TiVo? Same. Facebook? Ditto. Google search? You get the picture.

It's not just ease of use, either. Silicon Valley has a very different set of priorities than the rest of the world, as Google discovered with Buzz. Buzz's product manager, Todd Jackson, notes, "We've been testing Buzz internally at Google for a while. Of course, getting feedback from 20,000 Googlers isn't quite the same as letting Gmail users play with Buzz in the wild."

Yes, incredible as it may seem, the average Googler doesn't map very well to the average human being.

We in the technology world can navel-gaze all we want, but if we want to actually sell things, we've got to figure out what real people want. Guess what? They don't want technology, per se. They just want easy solutions to hard problems.

That's why I like Ubuntu's tagline: "Linux for human beings." It shows the right aspiration.

Our total addressable market, whatever the corner of technology in which we find ourselves, is as big or as small as our products are easy to use. Easy, that is, for mainstream users who like their phones and computers but don't write software for them.

About the author

    Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.

     

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