I’ve been thinking about polish a lot lately. I started overusing the word as part of my standard investor pitch but lately I’ve found myself thinking about it much more broadly.

Let’s start with a little about me. I’m a geek. I love geeky things. I’m unnaturally comfortable with a UNIX command line prompt and seeing the numbers “20 45” still make me think “this is the start of an IP header”. To this day, my wife would like it if I could remember trash day and free() the neurons associated with 6502 assembler and the Apple II memory map. You would think that pretty GUIs and end user experience aren’t top of mind issues for me.

But they are. They have been for a long time. I was fortunate enough to land a job as a tech in a medical billing outfit straight out of highschool where I was exposed to very smart people (doctors and nurses) who didn’t give a rat’s ass about electronic medical records, EDI, and managing billing systems that could integrate to electronic billing for insurance providers. They in turn threw my attitute into whack — their primary goal was taking care of patients and as far as they were concerned, the technology would have to come to them on their terms.

In short, I was never going to convince a 55 year old general practitioner to learn how he could chmod /dev/lp to make his printer work.

Since then, technology has made a lot of significant strides in improving usability. It is now much easier to get a handle on using a modern computer than ever before. USB interfaces are a particularly good example of this — remember what it was like to hook up a digital camera before USB? If you don’t it’s because you’ve either repressed the memory or consumed enough alcohol after the ordeal or zap those neurons dead.

In hindsight, I might go so far as to argue that digital cameras would not have experienced the success they have without the development of USB. USB was the critical element of polish that was necessary to make the technology practical for the typical home consumer to work with their digital cameras. If everyone had to install complicated drivers or use proprietary interfaces that weren’t easily interchangeable, digital cameras would never have succeeded. MP3 players fall into a similar bucket.

Come to think of it, MP3 players also make for another interesting case study. MP3 players were around for four years before Apple showed up. Before Apple, the players were a relatively modest success when taken into context of the larger consumer market. When Apple arrived with the iPod, they were still in recovery from a decade of bad management and Jobs was still proving himself to the world outside of his fanboys. For most people, the iPod was their first introduction to the Apple brand and the now well known Apple polish. Apple didn’t invent the MP3 player — it added the polish.

Yet with so many great technological examples of how polish took a technology and hit the accelerator, I remain stunned at the utter lack of polish in most technology products today — both consumer and enterprise focused. Most open source packages have an almost glorious lack of polish complete with a snide “read the source” attitude.

Commercial products are equally guilty — I’ve unboxed numerous products in the last month (software and hardware) and have been stunned at the lack of care that goes into documentation and user interface. My current favorite? A piece of networking gear my wife unboxed for me over the weekend that has broken GUI links to the documentation. If we weren’t already familiar with the hardware in question, we wouldn’t even know the default login and password. List price on this lovely? $45,000 for a high availability solution.

As we don our technology hats and look at the tools, products, and solutions we build, we have to remind ourselves that polish matters. It is the element that makes or breaks us. Polish is the iPod. Polish is the electronic starter in an automobile. Polish is the wireless router that works out of the box without any configuration.

Polish is what makes a good solution, great.

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