Back when we first started using PCs, we all wished that they would become as easy to use as a telephone. Well, we got our wish, not because computers got easier to use but because phones are now so darn complicated. If we examine the process and story by which phones became so complex, we can uncover a variety of lessons that startups can learn - and hopefully avoid.

The Phone's Transformation

First, the landline is becoming extinct. As we moved to cell phones, it became easier and more convenient for everyone to have their own number. This is true for both home and office lines: I gave up both a long time ago.

Minutes became ultra cheap, thanks to voice over IP telephony. Remember when you had to think about calling someone "long distance?" Now toll calls are pretty much a thing of the past. And the whole notion of area codes also got more complex. Forget traveling; cell phone users often keep their original area codes when they move to another city, so you can't tell where you are calling anymore. For example, I still have a Los Angeles "310" area code even though I have lived in the Midwest for several years now. In some countries, cell phones have their own area code, so all you can tell is that you are calling a mobile phone.

Then cell phones became more than just phones: About half of us now use them for surfing the Web or running apps, and navigating the typical cell plan now requires a degree in accounting. When we get a new plan, we have to figure out prices for our data and texting plans, and how many actual voice minutes we'll need – that is, if we still use phones to make actual phone calls.

And then, of course, there's the task of finding the right phone to purchase. Computers now seem a lot easier by comparison.

Lessons for Startups

So what, you say? Modern life is complex; deal with it.

But startups can take away some important lessons from this thought experiment:

  1. Don't assume that technology is understandable by everyone. Consider the context in which an item is going to be used, and its intended audience. This is Marketing 101, but still. Just because brilliant engineers from Stanford or MIT design your product doesn't mean that everyone who will actually use it has that kind of training.
  2. Simplify your pricing and eliminate degrees of freedom. I once had a client in the network storage business. Its pricing sheet comprised not one but a series of Excel spreadsheets. Since pricing had six different metrics, it could take the better part of an hour to come up with a final price for customers. It shouldn't be that hard. Take Thoreau's maxim ("Simplify, simplify, simplify!") to heart, and make your pricing easier to understand.
  3. Align your product with your domain name. How often do companies start with one name and end up having to change it because their major brand got more popular than the name of their company?
  4. Don’t penalize your best customers. When you run over your cellular airtime minutes allotment, you get hit with overage charges. It shouldn't take an act of Congress to convince companies of the folly of this tactic. Stop trying to extract more money from your best customers, and instead, make it easier to do business with your company.
  5. There is nothing wrong with having subscription-based pricing, but make it clear how a customer can end a contract without paying a hefty penalty.
  6. Don't make your product instantly obsolete. This issue is huge for cell phone makers right now, but every time you buy a laptop, the manufacturer instantly seems to introduce something lighter with a better screen.

As you can see, there is a lot that startups can learn from the saga of cellular phones' growing complexity. It does make you long for those days when we could just pick up that black model and ask the operator to dial a number for us. As Lily Tomlin's "Ernestine" would say, "I work for the phone company. It isn't my job to think."