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Tech's dirtiest little secret: Sometimes we agree to go backward

The technology world talks incessantly about progress, but even with some of the best products we sacrifice great features in the name of progress. Here's why, and some big examples.

Image: iStockphoto/OSTILL

The iPhone, Gmail, and the MacBook Air are three of tech's biggest runaway hits of the past decade.

And all three were compromised.

They brought amazing new capabilities. They pioneered important innovations. But, they also tossed aside valuable functionality, making us less productive in the process. They did it for a reason, of course, and all three products wouldn't have been world class if they hadn't made compromises.

That process isn't sexy to talk about in the tech industry--or the larger business world--but it's a critical component of making great decisions.

To illustrate the point, let's look closer at these three examples.

1. The iPhone kills the thumb keyboard

When the original iPhone was released, it was astonishingly usable although almost entirely useless. It could barely handle email, it ran on excruciatingly slow 2G networks, and it had scant few third party apps. But my two year old could pick it up, swipe to unlock, tap the photos app, and flip through photos without being shown how--which meant even your CEO could learn how to use it.

The iPhone was very much a reaction against BlackBerry and Windows Mobile, and it it turned out that its larger screen and multitouch swipes and gestures ended up fueling the mass adoption of smartphones (with a lot of help from its doppelganger, Android). But what iPhone--and Android--gave up in the process was the mini hardware keyboard that BlackBerry pioneered and Windows Mobile emulated. To this day, most professionals who used smartphones a decade ago will tell you that they still don't type as many emails on their phones as they did back then. Onscreen keyboards have gotten better and better, but sacrificing that one great feature was a trade off that had to be made in order to unlock a lot of other capabilities.

2. Gmail kills offline messages

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It's easy to forget how badly people wanted Gmail in 2004. It was still an invite-only beta at that point and some of the most popular people in the tech industry were the people who, at any given moment, had Gmail invites to share. Gmail did so many things better. It loaded faster. It had almost foolproof spam filters. You could easily access it from any computer over the web. And it offered 1GB of storage (500 times more than the webmail king, Hotmail).

Still, at the time that Gmail came out, professionals were converting from desktop to laptop PCs and one of the best features of full-fledged email clients like Microsoft Outlook and Mozilla Thunderbird was that they downloaded all of your messages, so that if you weren't connected then you could still write replies and new messages and when you did reconnect the software would automatically send the emails. With Gmail, Google bet on a world where everyone would have high-bandwidth, continuous connections to the internet. Gmail eventually half-heartedly implemented an offline mode, but it's never worked very well. Gmail was a big bet on the power of a fully-connected, web-native form of email. The trade-off was losing the kind of online/offline sync that powered the productivity of business travelers.

3. MacBook Air kills most expansion ports

A year after the iPhone, Apple refashioned the laptop with the unveiling of the MacBook Air. Like the iPhone, its design staggered the tech industry but its capabilities were underwhelming. It was impossibly thin (less than an inch deep) and it would reset the standard design for virtually all notebook computers.

But it paid a heavy price for its design breakthrough. It CPU was underpowered and its RAM was soldered to the motherboard to save space, so it was no longer possible to upgrade the memory after a year or two to get some extra life out of the machine. But, perhaps most glaringly, the MacBook Air removed most of the laptop's expansion ports--it had only one USB port, a headphone jack, and a proprietary video port. That was the price of ridiculous thinness. Apple added a few more ports to the next model, but it later pulled the same move with the even thinner MacBook 2015. While that limits the things users can do--it's harder to add an external mouse or connect an external hard drive, for example--it's a necessary trade-off for progress.

What we can learn

Leaders can apply this lesson to their own decision-making. If you try to do everything and include every feature in your product, you end up with Microsoft Word--bloated, confusing, over-functioning. If you apply discipline and make the right bets, you can end up with an iPhone, Gmail, or MacBook Air.

This is especially prescient for those of you who are planning your technology budgets for next year. You can't fund everything and you can't make everyone happy. Know what your strategic bets are and clear the way for them. If you need a hand, check out our joint ZDNet/TechRepublic special feature: IT Budgets 2016: A CIO's Guide.

ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. As a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US.

Previously on the Monday Morning Opener: