From Snacks To Software: Seeking Simplicity

The melodic piano concertos of Sergei Rachmaninoff. The subtle tastes and fragrances of fine French wines. And the extensive software programming that make global positioning satellite technology useful.

What do all of these creative endeavors share in common? To put it simply, they are all astonishingly complex. Although many of us can appreciate their forms and functions, very few of us can comprehend fully how they have been constructed, or how to construct similar works ourselves.

But complexity is not always a desirable trait; quite the contrary, simplicity is often valued instead. And last week, a pair of endeavors from opposite corners of American society earned widespread acclaim and admiration because of their abilities to “keep things simple.”

Goodbye, Food Pyramid …

The United States Department of Agriculture was widely hailed last week for replacing its visually complex food pyramid with a far more elementary food plate. To be sure, the original version of the pyramid was once widely admired, with its sizable foundation of healthy bread, cereal, rice, and pasta, and its relatively small capstone of unhealthy fats, oils, and sweets.

But as nutrition science evolved over the years, the food pyramid grew more complex. A flight of stairs was added to the left side of the pyramid in order to stress the importance of exercise. And the recommended portion sizes were added in precise measurement categories like ounces and cups, some stated in terms of a tenth of a unit.

According to today’s Department of Agriculture, what we now require in place of this complexity is a few simple messages. First, half of everything we eat should consist of fruits and vegetables, with a slight emphasis on vegetables over fruit. The other half of our diet should consist of grains and protein, with (hopefully) no fats or sweets added to our meals at all. And a moderate amount of low-fat dairy, perhaps in a glass of milk, is a healthy approach to washing down any meal.

To the delight of health professionals everywhere, the USDA chose to focus on these three simple assertions by developing a food plate to take the place of the pyramid. It now appears to be gaining popularity, not because of any complexity, but rather because of its sheer simplicity.

… Hello, Cloud Computing Devices!

A perfectly well balanced meal can still be a complicated endeavor … and so can be a perfectly functioning computer system! Microsoft, Apple, and even handheld device manufacturers like Research In Motion and Nokia have struggled during the past few decades to develop operating systems that boot up promptly, help users locate files easily, and avoid crashes, viruses, and other malfunctions.

In other words, computer and mobile phone customers are still searching for an operating system that can help them manage basic computing functions in a quick and reliable manner. They don’t necessarily need powerful computing devices; instead, they’d gladly settle for simplicity instead.

This is the market segment that represents the target of Google’s Chromebook, a revolutionary product that will be introduced later this month. It has no operating system, other than a souped-up version of Google’s Chrome web browser. And it has no built-in hard drive or other storage device; users are expected to find services in the internet “cloud” to help them with such functions.

What it offers is perfect simplicity. Push a button, and it boots up in eight seconds. Type a Google email address and password, and a web browser appears. At that moment, all of the services of the internet become available, with no software updates or security upgrades to slow the user down. Will it work?  Time will tell … and Google hopes that the market will appreciate the device for its sheer simplicity.

A Social Backlash

Have you heard about the restaurant entrepreneurs who recently began focusing on the development of a culinary competition dedicated to grilled cheese sandwiches? How about the investors who have recently begun managing bowling alleys around the nation? They all appear to be responding to a desire for simple pleasures in American society today.

Consider, as well, the recent trends towards small and efficient automobiles, as well as iPod, iPhone, and iPad devices that sport just a single user button on the face of each unit. Indeed, the popularity of these products may owe much to a societal backlash against complexity. Gone are the days when buyers would marvel at horribly complex automobile dashboards, or at mammoth stereophonic sound systems with multiple decks of components. Today, we all seem to admire simplicity.

Indeed, the new food plate and the emerging ChromeBook seem to be focusing on the same underlying desire, an inclination by the American public to value simplicity over complexity. At a time when home mortgages and health insurance policies have become maddeningly complicated, and when planning for retirement has become an intellectually mind-boggling activity, it is no wonder that Americans are interested in “keeping things simple” whenever they can do so.