Why computers should be more like toasters.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Jan. 25 2010 5:26 PM

Computers Should Be More Like Toasters

My hope for the big Apple announcement: a tablet that's as easy to use as an appliance.

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Many people who are familiar with computers aren't troubled by any of this. For folks who understand that a machine's graphical interface is just a metaphor for more complicated functions, the idea of having to go through the process of installing software seems obvious. Of course the OS has to ask you whether that music player you just downloaded should be "associated" with all music files or just certain music files—how else will the computer know what you want to do with it? Indeed, to the computing cognoscenti, machines like the one I'm yearning for will surely be dismissed as toys. A computer that does not give the user access to its inner guts is cheating you of your full experience of the machine, these people will argue. And there's a surefire way to make computers less complicated—for people to learn how to use them.

Yet this sort of thinking breaks down when you compare the PC with every other consumer product. An automobile is both much more physically capable and dangerous than a computer, and yet nobody has to understand how a car works in order to drive. Sure, we require people who are operating motor vehicles to receive special training, but the training is mainly about the rules of the road. Actually using the car—learning what the steering wheel, gears, and pedals do—is a five-minute process and does not require a lesson in internal combustion. And what do you need to do to maintain a car? Almost nothing: Load it up with gas and take it in every few months to a guy who makes sure it's in working condition. When your car is in trouble, it doesn't issue a slew of warnings for you to interpret; it just says "check engine" and expects you to get expert help. Compare this with all the hassles of maintaining your computer: backing up your data, defragmenting your drive, checking for viruses, making sure your files are organized properly, occasionally reinstalling your operating system because things have gotten too gunked up, and on and on.

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To be sure, this isn't a perfect metaphor; most of a car's maintenance is related to physical wear and tear, while we're mainly talking about the software side of computing. So why should we expect Apple's new tablet to set us free from all this? Because as Gizmodo's Diaz points out, Apple already makes the one computer in the world that can be described as an appliance—the iPhone.

The most revolutionary thing about Apple's phone wasn't its sleek case or the multitouch gestures, but the artful way in which it hid nearly every bit of complexity behind a display of easy-to-understand icons. The iPhone contains no visible "directory structure." Your music is not in a particular place on your phone; it's just on your phone, and you get to it by launching the music player. Other than charging it, the iPhone requires no maintenance. Backups and OS upgrades occur automatically, and because all programs are approved by Apple (and because even third-party programmers aren't given deep access to the phone), you never have to worry about malware. And look how easy it is to install a program: Choose one from the store, press "Install," and type in your password to authorize the purchase—and that's it. The iPhone doesn't ask you where you want to put the new program, or how you'd like to launch it, and whether you'd like it to be the default program for doing a particular kind of task. It just puts up a little icon on the screen. To run the program, click the icon. To do something else, hit the home button.

Not everyone will celebrate this new experience in computing. Making PCs simpler to use will also inevitably make them less customizable. For most techies, customizability is the soul of computing. Google's Android has gained a following among engineer-types precisely because it is endlessly flexible; you can peer into its deepest recesses of code and tinker with all that you find there, producing some amazing modifications.

But tinkerers are a limited market; there are lots of people who like to soup up their cars, but there are lots more who don't. If Apple is wise—and I'm betting it is—it'll build a tablet for the large majority of people who just want it to work.

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Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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