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.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

One evening a few weeks ago, I got a call from my dad asking me how to add music to his new iPod Shuffle. "Just plug it into your computer," I told him. "It'll just work." He called back a few minutes later. He'd plugged it in, but now what? "Didn't iTunes open up?" I asked. Turns out it had, but my dad hadn't noticed that the program had gotten hidden behind his browser window. I told him to click the iTunes icon and that everything should be self-explanatory after that. It wasn't. When he opened the program, it explained that he'd need to get a new version in order to sync with the Shuffle. My evening flashed before my eyes. What should have been a straightforward mission—an iPod Shuffle should just work by plugging it into your computer—was now turning into a drawn-out tech-support session. After about 45 minutes with only halting success, my dad and I were both ready to give up.

Why are computers so hard to use? Readers ask me some version of this question all the time. Not long ago, I got a letter from a reader named David Hildebrand that nicely summed up the problem. Hildebrand managed to teach his 82-year-old mother how to use a few easy programs, but that wasn't enough: "While one or another program may be simple enough to use," he wrote, "it is still very difficult to manage folders, force-quit applications, adjust screen displays, tweak volume, and do all the other fairly arcane things one must learn about an OS in order to get the simpler applications to be simple." The reader wondered whether that would ever change. "In short, when will the computer become an appliance?"

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If we're lucky, it'll happen this week. Let's start with the standard disclaimer that nobody knows exactly what Apple is planning to unveil at its press event on Wednesday. The suspicion is that it'll be a "tablet" computer, and even though I can't guess how Apple will overcome years of difficulties in selling tablets, you wouldn't be going out on a limb to predict that it'll be different from every other tablet that's come before. But among the many reasons that this machine will be hailed as revolutionary—Apple's usually slick industrial design, a user interface that will look stunning in TV ads, and of course Steve Jobs' uncanny ability to make everything he sells sound like it's the second coming—I'll have my fingers crossed for something very specific. I'm hoping Apple's tablet will be the world's easiest computer, the first fully powered PC that is as simple to use as a kitchen appliance. I'm hoping that this will finally be the computer that can live up to my advice to my dad about how to sync his iPod: It'll just work.

"Appliance" computers are an old dream in the PC industry. As Jesus Diaz explains in an incisive Gizmodo article, Jef Raskin, the computing pioneer who started the Macintosh project at Apple, had long aimed to build what he called an "information appliance"—in Diaz's words, a device "so easy to use that anyone would be able to grab it and start playing with it right away, without any training whatsoever."

But it takes lots of work to make something simple, and computers have never been able to fulfill Raskin's dream. (Raskin died in 2005.) Over the years, computer makers have managed to hide much of the PC's inner machinery behind useful metaphors—your computer is a like a filing cabinet full of file folders, and you get it to do useful things by clicking on icons to activate programs. Too often, though, these metaphors break down to reveal the ugly complexity lurking just beneath the surface.

Take, for instance, the process of running a new program for the first time. You don't just click an icon. First you've got to download and install the program, which often involves finding a file in a "Downloads" folder somewhere in a directory called "Documents and Settings," clicking through several dialog boxes that present cryptic warnings—"Do you really want to install this?" "Do you accept this licensing agreement?" "Would you like a shortcut on your desktop?"—and then waiting while your computer spews forth a stream of arcane information: "copying installation files," "updating registry," etc. I'm describing the Windows installation process, but the same thing on the Mac is not terribly easier—you've still got to click an installation file, agree to a license, click and drag, then look for your new program.

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