Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Computers are hard

I've been working with computers since the Apple IIe. I've owned more than I will take the time to count up. My circle of friends all have some bit of computer literacy and yet day after day I'm amazed at just how hard it is for people to use computers.

In the days before the Internet people could get a computer take it home put their check book in an application keep track of lists and print out letters. The computers all did that pretty well. There were problems getting the printers hooked up sometimes and you would have to buy an application or two for the balancing of your check book and the keeping of that list or two. Computers were expensive and not that many people had them. Software was expensive too.

Today a computer is a much more versatile tool. It is a digital dark room, a high tech video phone, a music studio, an entertainment center. They cost a fraction of the old one's their power is astronomic compared to what we had in the 80's or the 90's and we are connected to the world.

And there in lies a large part of the problem. We have to get them connected to the world. This entails cable modems, dsl modems, home routers, home switches, wireless access points, wireless cards, network cards, firewalls. Then all this has to be configured to work together and allow communication in certain directions and block communications in other directions. This has happened to me over and over someone says hey this does not work. Heck I've said hey this does not work. And realized hey that can't talk to that, I wonder why? Duh somehow a firewall got turned on. This happens over and over again. And I understand networking. To most people it is something akin to brain surgery or maybe rocket science.

Here is another common occurrence. A hard drive eats a file (consider this hard drives now rely on error correction to read files back) maybe it is a little file may seem unimportant, but too Windows it is one of those critical files required to get going. And there you have an expensive door stop that goes into a blues screen that isn't even animated or it reboots over and over again. If it is under warranty the maker might give you a new drive. But you will have to surrender your old drive and you will probably be told there is no way to get those 10,000 family photos off of there.

How do you keep that stuff safe then. Well there is external hard drive's I've had a friend that has had three of them fail and I think I have had one fail and another is acting strange. There is the Drobo. Wonderful bit of tech I will be writing about later. It is easier than some things to use and offers data redundancy. Here it is in a nut shell if you have digital items that are important get a Drobo and figure out how to store those important digital bits over on it. But then if your house burns down it is not going to be much help.

What about apple one might ask. Well Apple makes a very nice, powerful computer it has a lot of great features and they have done some very smart things. But honestly it is really not that much easier to use than a Windows machine. Sure there are some things that it does to help you out but it is still a mystery to a lot of people. But a geek moment here Unix is cool and OS X is based on Unix. So therefor it is cool.

So how did we get here and where do we go. Computers have a lineage that goes back to when they were used by very geeky people that understood the inner workings of them and they based there development on that understanding. Knowing the end users had the same understanding. Today it is hard for people that have an in depth understanding of how computers work to design things in such a way as to make sense to those people that don't live bits, bytes, or and xor's . Sure we have trained people to use them a certain way and like Pavlov's Dog people have come to expect a certain result from a certain action. If that doesn't work then turn it off and on again.

However computers are still very hard to use, set up and get connected. These things are all done in a way that is not very geared for common people. The terminology while correct means nothing to people outside of the discipline.

Maybe some day we will have devices that can self configure and can be worked with in a more natural way where the interface will make sense with out training. My hope is it won't be through voice commands though. If you think your office is annoying now with just the clicky click of keyboards wait till everyone is trying to talk their computer into doing what they want. Yeah, especially that guy that sits two aisles over is hard of hearing and rattles the windows when he talks on the phone. Yeah that is going to be fun............

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