The recent decision by the German parliament to consider a move back to typewriters may serve as a lesson, not only in the need for secure products, but also in the dangers of overdesign.
The German story came to light recently when that country's parliament, frightened by recent security breaches, began looking at ways of preventing leaks from computer hardware. Its move was preceded only days earlier by a similar decision by Russian officials.
In truth, their concerns aren't much different from those of countless manufacturers and power plant operators. Even automobiles are now at risk; a computer security conference recently offered $10,000 to any attendee who could hack into the electronics of a Tesla Model S.
The stories raise a simple question: Are products being over-teched? Could it be that we don't really need 64-bit processors, 4 GB of RAM, and Internet access to drive a car or type a letter?
Swintec Corp. still makes and sells typewriters. Its 2640CC is a word processor offering up to 128K of memory.
(Source: Swintec Corp.)
All the stories shed light on a problem that's pervasive in product design: We add capabilities because we can. Economies of scale make it possible to incorporate big memories and high-powered processors. This enables us to access the Internet, run YouTube, play games, waste time, download malware, and endanger security -- all for a relatively low price. The problem is that extra power translates to extra problems, which must be prevented by more layers of complicated software.
In some targeted applications, there's a clear benefit to simpler designs. Typewriters still exist. Some offer surprising capabilities. They can highlight, move, delete, and copy text. They can store documents. For some narrow tasks, they're as effective as a laptop and printer.
"With our machines, you can do anything that you could do with a word processor, except waste time by going online," Ed Michael, general manager of the typewriter manufacturer Swintec Corp., told us. He argues that a good typewriter may actually be an improvement over a computer-based word processor. "The first thing most people do when they get to work is turn on their computer, check their email, get on Facebook, and waste 45 minutes. In a way, our product makes them more productive."
However, that bit of wisdom doesn't sell millions of typewriters, largely because basic typewriters don't offer a clear cost advantage over word processors. And it's human nature for consumers to want more for less, even when more may not be good for them.
That's why the German and Russian security concerns are unlikely to spur a surge in typewriter sales. Similarly, automotive Internet access won't disappear when a few cars get hacked.
Most applications do need general-purpose technology, but not all. History teaches us that there's a niche for targeted products that offer only what's necessary. "When the vacuum cleaner was invented, people said, 'There goes the broom business,'" Michael said. "But today, everyone still has a broom."