Why computers should be more like toasters.

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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.

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.

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.