Keep It Simple, Stupid!

What's the biggest issue facing users of information technology? Computing speed? No. Disk space? No way. Cost? Nope. Integration issues? You're getting warm. Ease of use? Bingo. The trouble people have in learning how to use various kinds of computers and software is almost universal. Most of us at one time or another have felt like clowns cast in some sadistic, laughless circus when trying to operate our personal computers. Just consider, for a moment, the Internet. What does it really mean when the screen tells you that you can't access a particular Web site's server? Why not? Do you have the wrong browser? The screen won't reveal its secrets. How about software? What is a "fatal error" anyway? Does that mean you've stepped into an empty elevator shaft? Can you sue? For years the computer industry has pledged to make things easier for everyone. At a conference on workstations for computer-aided design held earlier this year, Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates said the software giant had a major simplicity initiative underway. But when I pressed the company for an interview, they told me the executive in charge was traveling in Europe. I pointed out that Europe has phones, too, but I never did get the interview. We all know how easy it is to use Windows. The icons, you know. Little pictures that let you call up programs and perform functions without worrying about those confusing words getting in the way. Given the inscrutable prose that fills most computer and software manuals, who wouldn't vote for pictures? But sometimes the icons are meaningless. What the heck are those arrows, Xs, globes, and blocks supposed to mean? Sure, you can look them up in the manual and, after a couple of hours, figure out how to use them. But they're certainly not "intuitive." Rich Finkelstein, president of Performance Computing, a consulting firm in Chicago, says so much time is spent by workers trying to upgrade to the next operating system that "we're going to need a law so that everyone is allowed a week or a month off to change their operating system." All this complexity isn't free. At many companies, PC and network support costs have shot through the factory roof. That's why the concept of the network computer has taken hold. Microsoft responded by bringing out its Zero Administration for Windows system aimed at curbing support costs. According to one estimate, the average worker in the U.S. spends the equivalent of two weeks annually in training, and most of it is a direct result of new or revised software. There has been some real progress. Laptop computers, for instance, have track pads, track balls, or eraser heads located in the center of the keypad as pointing devices. These are fairly easy to use once you get the hang of it. Still, there's a learning curve. I remember the first time I tried to use a mouse. I was in a computer store with my nephew, who was a grade-schooler. We were trying a demo of a computer game. I kept pointing at things on the screen, but nothing happened. My nephew snatched the thing out of his stupid uncle's clumsy paw and instantly he was tapping into the game program and playing it like an old hand. I had missed the whole point of point-and-click. While we're at it, let's not overlook on-and-off buttons. Have you ever seen a computer that advertised how you turn it on and off? I mean, if this is an Easter egg hunt, just say so. Maybe that's why kids are so good with PCs. They love games. Adults? Well, maybe we checked our game mentality at the door when we turned 13 or so and began noticing the opposite sex. Speaking of turn-ons, my Apple Powerbook is a case in point. The "on" switch on the Powerbook doesn't say that. Instead, it just has a little arrowhead that points left. Pretty clear, huh? To turn off the Powerbook, you have to click on something called "shut down." Whatever happened to "off"? Give us a break, computer hardware and software design folks. You've already fashioned plenty of stuff that almost no one can understand, unless it's my former neighbor, who had a Ph.D. in computer science, sold his software firm to Microsoft, and emigrated to Seattle. How about some technology for the rest of us?

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