Perhaps I’ve spent too many hours of too many days up to my elbows in a computer case to really know how intimidating and confusing a computer can be to the average consumer. I got a small taste of that this past weekend when I purchased a Replay TV device and had to figure out a way to connect a VCR, a DVD, a Split Line Cable Box, and the Replay unit together and have one single remote control operate each component. I wadded my hair into my fists at one point. I found the manuals vague, the components cryptic, and the “support technicians” unmotivated. Currently, I still have to unplug and replug cables here and there when I want to watch a DVD.

At some point during the decade of the 1980s, we were supposed to introduce the Personal Computer to Joe Consumer, and toss rice as they blissfully drove off in a soapy balloon filled car. Instead, we placed them both in a coliseum and cheered at the gore and mayhem. At least, that’s what the speakers at this year’s Association for Computing Machinery Conference claim. One is hard pressed to find fault with their assessment. Little has changed in the past twenty years in the way we use computers, and the way computers assist us in our daily needs. I’m not talking about hot new video cards or furnace hot processors, but the basic functions that the ordinary home computer performs for the average consumer. ZDNet contributor Rachel Konrad quotes William Buxton, chief scientist for Alias Wavefront in her article today:

If Rip Van Wrinkle went to sleep in 1982 and woke up today, he’d be able to drive our modern computers with no problem because they’re essentially unchanged… There’d just be more crap on it.

The lion’s share of the blame was directed at financiers and those in the industry who have little to no concept of anything beyond shiny pebbles and the Bottom Line. Hence, instead of new innovative input devices, we get plum colored cases and monitors. Instead of direct-to-screen input as a successor to the ball mouse, we have dissolving menu trees.

A month ago I might have snorted and said, “bah. Computers aren’t that complex, people are just too lazy.” I try to remember that each time I want to watch a DVD at home and I have to reach over the television to swap a bushel of video cables around.


Ziff Davis Net Feature by Rachel Konrad

Association for Computing Machinery website

20 years later, we have 12 function keys.

The footmouse will save us!