Minimalist Approach to Technology

“Less is more,” cried the Minimalists of the 1960s art scene, stripping their canvases down to the barest essentials of color, shape, and line. Japanese auto manufacturers brought a similar sensibility to the auto world in the 1970s, building reliable and economical compact cars that quickly outsold the oversize, overstyled gas hogs built by American manufacturers.

In 2002, the technology world needs a comparable movement to pare computer products down to their most simple, reliable, and effective basics. Let’s face it: After the dotcom implosion of the past couple of years, everyone is a little gun-shy about whiz-bang, bleeding-edge technology — and with good reason. Web-based “solutions” have become baroque in their complexity, with more features than even the most competent techies can understand and utilize. Server software vendors continue to sell features their customers don’t need or even understand (see “Are You Overspending on That App Server?“).

On a more immediate level, consider the computer you’re sitting in front of right now. How many menu items on your browser or word processor have you ever actually used? Probably no more than a fifth of them. Yet programs get more and more complex and expensive as software makers pile on gee-whiz features — just as 1950s auto manufacturers added eye-catching chrome and tail fins to cars that didn’t even run reliably.

The good news is that you don’t have to wait for computer and software vendors to change their ways — you can introduce a program of savvy techno-minimalism on your own. The big technology imperatives this year will likely be optimization and integration: getting the maximum value out of existing IT investment, and tying together disparate computer systems so that they can exchange data more easily. As it happens, these tasks are well-suited to minimalist mindsets and stripped-down technology budgets.

For inspiration, consider Web portal Iwon.com, which acquired competing portal Excite.com this fall. Iwon rebuilt the portal from the ground up in about a month, including more than a thousand pages of customizable content and millions of user accounts. They did it all for under $5 million, including the purchase price, according to a recent New York Times story — a tenth what Excite spent to build the original portal. You couldn’t ask for a clearer demonstration of minimalism’s triumph over techno-baroque.

Accordingly, here are the Defogger’s minimalist recommendations for the technology bets in 2002:

• Data backup and recovery services. One of the most amazing things about the days following Sept. 11 was how quickly companies based in the World Trade Center were able to get their businesses back up and running. Most were using data-backup and business-continuity services to store data safely elsewhere, so even though their physical headquarters had been destroyed, they lost little or no critical information. Your business needs the same thing. (Incidentally, this applies to your desktop computer at home, too — you do make regular backups, don’t you?)

• Business intelligence. You’ve got tons of information about your customers already. Now put it to use. Business intelligence tools, which range from inexpensive analysis packages like Crystal Reports to pricey data-mining systems like E.piphany and Business Objects, can help make sense out of mounds of data, giving you a better picture of what your customers want — and how to sell it to them.

• Usability testing. Increasing the usability of your website delivers marked results without a major investment. Commerce sites that are easy to use generate more sales, while usable intranets help employees get their jobs done faster. It’s neither difficult nor expensive to measure how well your sites actually work — it can be done with as few as five test subjects, according to usability guru Jakob Nielsen, fewer even than a small focus group. Nielsen walks you through the basics at www.alertbox.com.

• Web services. Application integration is typically a laborious, expensive business, because so much of it is customized for your particular set of circumstances. Web services promise to simplify integration by using a common set of standards for the exchange of data. They’re not ready for prime time yet, but Web services will play a big role in corporate IT in the coming years, so keep them on your radar screen (see “A Common Language for the Next-Generation Internet“).

• Outsourcing. Offloading your technology requirements to an outsourcer replaces hefty capital outlays with predictable monthly fees. Good candidates for outsourcing include website hosting, Web-based applications, content distribution, and, in some cases, storage. But beware of outsourcing everything — that can leave you with little in-house technical expertise, a potential problem when the next wave of technological change comes along and you need gurus to help you understand it.

• The off-switch. Eighty-hour weeks are so 20th-century. From time to time, you need to think about putting down your laptop, cell phone, Blackberry, and Palm Pilot so you can enjoy life, get some perspective, and relax a little. All gadgets come with off-buttons. Learn how to use them.

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Minimalist Approach to Technology