Gigahertz? No! What Matters Is the User Experience

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Unless you are a data center geek, until recently you’ve probably never heard of P.U.E., an acronym that stands for Power Usage Effectiveness. It is a way of gauging data center efficiency, and it has become the metric-to-watch when it comes to talking about how much power a data center consumes. However, lately it has started cropping up in media reports and started to get all sorts of attention. PUE represents the “arms race” between folks who own and operate large data centers – from Google to Facebook to Microsoft. But to most of us, PUE roughly translates into bupkis.

Google’s Bill Weihl, the search giant’s energy czar (watch Bill and Yahoo’s Christina Page in conversation with me at our Green:Net conference) points out that while PUE is a good talking point, it is not an absolute number and it varies with the kind of data center, location of the data center, time of the day, with seasons and even with change in weather patterns. Those kinds of nuances, however, are getting increasingly lost in today’s world, one that is obsessed with now, one that is drowning in screaming headlines, each one elbowing the other in the ribs for a nano-second of attention.

The Crutch

The data center industry’s obsession with PUE is illustrative of a mindset that has become increasingly pervasive in our society: namely, an obsession with metrics and numbers without context, and without quite understanding what they mean for us as individuals. Not a day goes by without an app developer boasting of the number of times his app has been downloaded — but since downloads don’t translate into automatic usage, the real number worth sharing would be active daily users or some sort of an engagement metric.  As my colleague Ryan Kim said, show me some user loyalty.

As modern technology has started to get more complex, these metrics and other numbers have become a crutch for marketing and spin, especially for companies that lack a coherent vision of what they do and where they are going. Wireless companies love talking about 4G technologies, though no one knows what it really means. If 3G was good, then 4G is better, and by that yardstick, the companies can pretend to be better than the next guy.

The point is that whenever new technology comes along, marketers come up with somewhat abstract metrics and banal numbers to attract customers by inspiring awe and amazement. If it is big, it must be better.  Just as two-for-the-price-of-one and super-size-it provided a big boost for consumer goods and fast food industries, the technology industry thus far has been about speeds-and-feeds. For sometime, the CPU-oomph based marketing made sense. As PCs became super powerful and focus shifted to Internet, the Gigahertz don’t influence our computer buying decisions.

Steve Crandall, a physicist and founding partner at Omenti Research, who spent many years with Bell Labs and is a lifelong disciple of technology, points out that this is not a new phenomenon. “Engineering is the art of compromise and the bag of metrics that describe something can be very complex and non-trivial even for experts in the field,” he wrote in an email. “A non-technical consumer is often overwhelmed and given a single number or two makes it easy for them to “compare” — of course the problem is the comparisons may be meaningless for their own usage requirements.”

James Watt came up with the concept of horsepower to sell steam engines (made by Watt and Mathew Boulton) and later to sell cars. In the 1950s, transistor counts were used to push radios; in the 1960s, watts were used to sell Hi-Fi systems and with the dawn of the personal computer, Intel made a fortune selling the end-users on the notion of megahertz and gigahertz.

However, with the dawn of anywhere, anytime personal computing the focus has to shift away from these metrics and instead focus on non-quantifiable concepts such as looks, ease of use, simplicity and emotional gratification. The sneaker industry is a good teacher for many of us technology sector.

Just Kick It

Unless you are a sneaker fanatic (and there are many), you don’t care who designed your sneaker or what kind of material is used to make the shoe, or what kind of grip the sole has. Instead, what makes us buy the sneakers? Looks and branding! More often it is this notion of you can “just do it” that makes you buy a sneaker.

When you look under the hood of watches, they are just like many technology products, quite complex. Despite what my friends who are watch devotees might think, in the end watches are a piece of jewelry. It doesn’t matter if is has 21 jewels or some kind of special material – what appeals to our senses is how it looks and of course how much it costs.

The smartphones of today are no different – they are devices of self-expression. When it comes to these devices, folks who don’t obsess with feeds-and-speeds make their purchasing decisions based on questions practical and abstract. Like – how does a phone look? How easy it is to use? What apps does it have? Can I get Facebook? Can I take photos and can I get email? More importantly, is it cool enough for rest of my friends?

Whenever I see a company trying to use GigaHertz or dual core chips as a marketing message, I do know one thing – they don’t quite understand how to relate to their customers. I looked over the Apple iPhone packaging – it has no mention of the kind of chip it uses.

Just as Don Draper turned a geeky slide projector into a “time machine” of memories, Apple has turned iPhone into a device that helps you do something and in the process have moments of personal achievement and satisfaction. Fortunately, there are no numbers for that. So next time you hear PUE, just smile and think – Google and Facebook are using less energy to help us find things and connect with friends and family.

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