The Point of Diminishing Features

Making software products is a great business. You release version 1 and start selling, followed by new major versions from time to time that generate further upgrade revenue. A good product can give you a nice ongoing business.

It seems like a lot of products, and not just software products, are really exciting when they first come out. People go gaga over the product and buy it by the truckload. Then comes the next version, and it’s got some huge improvements and people happily snap it up. The next version really puts the polish on, and again is a hit. In fact, I think I’ve seen it said that Microsoft products don’t really hit their stride until 3.0.
But I think that’s precisely where the “point of diminishing features” is reached. The product went from intriguing to great to “use all the time”. The improvements made after that might entice some new customers but no longer really shine for the existing customers.
Let me make that more concrete: Microsoft Office hit that point a long time ago. Or, more specifically, Word, PowerPoint and Excel. The only useful features Microsoft could add were features that were useful and exciting to a very small subset of their audience. Upgrades to those products simply wouldn’t be exciting enough for most people. And, major UI reshufflings just annoy people, rather than making them want to upgrade.
In the case of Office, since almost everyone buys it as a bundle, Microsoft had the option of creating entirely new products like OneNote and then making it seem like a no-brainer to just buy the upgraded suite.
Watching the Apple “Back to the Mac” keynote, it really felt like iLife had hit the point of diminishing features. Watching Steve Jobs, I didn’t get the impression that even he was truly excited about iLife ’11. He seemed most excited when he introduced the new MacBook Air.
I wanted to be excited by iLife ’11. There were features there that were “kinda neat”, but nothing that made me want to grab the credit card and head out to the store.
What’s the cure? “Think different”. Try to come up with fundamentally new ways for the customer to do things and use that type of product, or create features that take something that you frequently want to do and turn it into a quick, fun task. Making trailers looks like fun in iLife ’11, but I don’t actually want to make trailers. I’ll be curious to see how many of those things show up on YouTube.
Mac OS Lion seems like it will be way more interesting than iLife ’11, because Apple is bringing a bunch of unusual new ways to work with a full computer in from the iOS world. And, you can bet that we’ve only seen a piece of Lion.
I think iWork has the potential to be exciting, just because so many features are still missing from Numbers and Pages. iWork doesn’t feel like it has reached “3.0” yet.
I’ll end this line of thinking with a product that ran for a good number of years before hitting the point of diminishing features: the iPod. The iPod had a good run of big new features because Apple was willing to take major moves like drop the best-selling mini in favor of the new and untried nano.
If you’re working on a product and find yourself unable to be truly excited by the features coming in the next rev, maybe it’s time to go back to the drawing board and rethink some fundamental aspects of it.

One thought on “The Point of Diminishing Features”

  1. iLife needs to become “cloud-enabled”, providing the same nice desktop user experience but store all the data in the cloud so that everyone will feel more comfortable with switching over to the smaller capacity ssd drives that will soon be standard. Probably not iMovie, at least not for a few years, but iTunes and iPhoto could totally be cloud-enabled, pulling down data only as needed for play/display/syncing to other devices. I’m hoping a revived Lala will be the first step in that direction.

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