Monday, April 02, 2001

Missing the point Here's an extended post by Dan Bricklin on why the PC is not too hard to use after all. Dan argues that just because something needs to be learned, it does not mean it is too hard, and goes on to cite driving, cooking, and reading as important activities that require extensive training yet everyone manages them OK.

It is important to read things like this every so often to be reminded of just how out of touch some people are. Bricklin is right, of course, driving, cooking and reading do require training. However, almost everyone can drive, cook, and read without any problems. Until the advent of the Internet, however, only about 10% of the US population had a PC at home, a figure that has risen to over 50% as half the nation now logs onto AOL and chats. But they don't want a PC, they want AOL chat, and if there was an easier, cheaper way to get that, they would take it.

This history of computers has been one of people putting up with the most horrific devices just because they provide something so useful that folks can't get by without them. This was true for visicalc, then the word processor, and now email/AIM chat. Far from being enrapt by the PC's wonderful flexibility, most folks have lives uninvolved with CPUs and silicon and would rather say hi to granny and then try and get this year's tax return done. They are not, as Bricklin would have us beleive, a-quiver with excitement at adding a CD burner. For most people, the PC is opaque, frustrating, intimidating, and needlessly complex. I stress needlessly, because this is where I beleive Bricklin loses the thread.

I don't ask my PC for much. A little typing, a little Web, a little email. Yet my Vaio cannot turn on, dial-up, open a web browser, and then shut down without crashing. In Microsoft word I am typing a paper when paragraphs start jumping around. Then the paperclip appears and asks if I want help. The new version of Quicken which came with my new computer (and superceded Quicken 98, a lovely program) has hidden all the useful information and replaced the start screen with some impenetrable control panel and a banner ad. A banner ad! Did I not pay for this software? Why is everything digital so pointlessly, needlessly complicated? This is what people mean when they say the PC is too hard to use. Not that they refuse to learn how to use anything, but that technology wastes people's time with it triviality, capriciousness, and general bloody mindedness.

Bricklin is right on one point though, Microsoft's agent idea is only going to make things worse. Intrusive, irritating, and stupid technology cannot be rectified by adding another layer of intrusive, irritating, and stupid technology, whatever Microsoft may think with it's government-supported monopoly on PCs and freedom to abuse that monopoly power in whatever way it deems fit.

Technology needs to be simpler. Less technology will make a PC easier to use.


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