The Apple iPad vs the Amazon Kindle debate rages on in the media and the blogosphere – with no end in sight. The iPad fans proclaim that the Kindle is dead : it is no match for the rich, interactive, tactile interface of the iPad – a superior, almost magical experience some call it. The Kindle fans counter this view with well reasoned, rational arguments that list all the positive attributes of the Kindle – lower price, e-Ink display, longer battery life, etc. – and say that it is the perfect e-reader and will beat the iPad. So which side is right ? Neither side is – the fallacy in all these arguments is that only one type of device can rule the market. That is akin to someone proclaiming in 1984 – when the Mac was introduced that it would kill the PC market or that the latest DVD player from Sony would kill Panasonic. Why is an e-reader different from these other consumer electronics devices ? Isn’t this basic Marketing 101 ? Markets and consumers are not homogeneous – they are fragmented into many different segments – each one composed of different needs, tastes, preferences, economics and demographics.
The debate over the iPad and the Kindle however also highlights another very interesting and subtle divide in tastes, preferences and attitudes – which I think influences the way companies design products and the way consumers react to products. I call it the left vs right brain divide. Now I do realize that the left and right brained model – called brain laterlization – while popular is not as accurate as was once believed. Current research suggests that the brain is far more complex than such a simple model suggests. It is however still a very useful metaphor in conveying the differences in approach – so keep this in mind when you read what follows. You may call it the Analytical vs the Designer approach if you prefer.
The first thing that grabs you about the iPad is its beautiful design – it is a perfect mix of form and function in an aesthetically appealing package. The genius of Steve Jobs is that he has perfected the art of conceiving and creating products that combine beauty and functionality in a seamless, holistic way. The iPad is visually appealing, intuitive, fun, invites play and exploration and appeals to the artistic, creative side in all of us. Those are the same attributes that characterize the right side of our brains. As per the popular theory -people who are “right brained” are said to be artistic, creative, dreamers, better at art and visual communication than math and logic. So if ever there was such as a thing a s a “right-brained” company – Apple seems to fit that bill very well – with Steve Jobs being the ultimate right-brained CEO. His whole approach to design is to iterate till “he falls in love with the device”. And the iPad certainly is a device designed to appeal to the right-side of our brains – and it succeeds extremely well in doing that.
Kindle on the other hand is a device that seems to appeal to the the proverbial “left-side” of the brain. In a reasoned, detailed comparison of individual features of the Kindle vs the iPad – it comes out ahead as an e-reader. It is the engineer’s design for an e-reader – an economical, minimalist, efficient design that gets the job done. It is the rational, left-brained choice for an e-reader. This is not surprising when you look at Amazon and Jeff Bezos. Amazon is well known for its highly analytical approach to problem solving – driven apparently by Bezos obsession for detail and measurement. So a product like the Kindle seems to be the perfect device that emerges from such an approach – it is the perfect “Left-brained” e-reader.
If you take this analogy further, you will find “left-brained” thinking is dominant among many technology companies – with Google being the prime example. Again not surprising considering most technology companies hire engineers, and programmers – highly “left-brained” tasks. In fact, Google exemplifies the pinnacle of “left-brain” thinking. Everything is measured and analyzed and split-tested with very little room for subjective design choices. A designer who quit Google wrote in his blog “Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’re testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better” !
So what is the point of all this ? The runaway success of the iPhone and the iPad – seems to indicate that maybe some “right-brained” thinking may not be such a bad idea in the “left-brain” dominated technology world.