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It's Time to Simplify the PC

Wednesday, December 13, 2000
by Mark Hurst

The New York Times points out in an article this week (and Creative Good has preached this for years) that those websites maintaining the simplicity of the Web's early years have become leaders. Yahoo and Amazon, for example, haven't succumbed to the lures of Flash, Java, random plug-ins, or other technologies irrelevant to customers on the site. Instead, they have built their sites around plain HTML pages full of blue underlined text links. Partially due to simplicity, both sites have handily defeated their online competitors.

But take a step back, and it hardly matters what Yahoo does. Unfortunately, even the simplest site on the Web can't escape the overwhelming complexity of the personal computer on which the site appears. Everything about today's personal computer - from the hardware to the operating system to the Web browser software - is complicated, unreliable, ridden with defects (not "bugs," as the industry would like us to call them), and focused on short-term profits at the expense of the user.

This complexity is discussed in Cheryll Aimee Barron's Salon article last week. She argues that today's flawed PC is the product of a flawed tech industry:

A culture of carelessness seems to have taken over in high-tech America. The personal computer is a shining model of unreliability because the high-tech industry today actually exalts sloppiness as a modus operandi.

Barron is exactly right in her diagnosis of the problem. But her prescription, based on interviews with experts trying to fix the tech industry, is not quite as on-target. Barron's experts suggest that new PC hardware or software from outside the U.S. will turn the tide, in the same way that Japan forced U.S. automakers into higher quality standards in the 80s.

My thinking is a bit different: the problem we face is one of too much technology, too deeply entrenched in inferior legacy systems, served up by a flawed business model of "upgrade taxation." In short, the tech industry has had plenty of chances to solve the problem of complex PCs. It has failed. Now it's time for people other than technologists to take over.

The solution to complex PCs is all around us, but it does not lie inside the technology. Simplicity is the solution, and simplicity doesn't come from a bigger motherboard or the next version of Windows. Simplicity also doesn't come from incrementally improving the usability of the deeply flawed hardware and software we have today. Simplicity calls for radical change, not reform; it must come from the users, not the tech industry.

Simplicity comes from the users' choice of simple tools, the users' skills in using only basic features, and the users' awareness of how NOT to react when the technology industry tries to seduce them with more complexity. Simplicity is abundant and free; it only requires the user's choice to make the switch.

The path toward simple PCs must be walked by users, not technologists. This is an essential point.

Furthermore, many users in the corporate world can't make a choice for simplicity, because the MIS or IT department makes the choices for them. Many home PC users also can't make a choice, because the vendor cluttered up the PC with irrelevant, self-serving chaff before selling it to the user. Therefore many users, to get to the path, will need a strong advocate, pushing decision-makers in board rooms and MIS labs to allow users to choose simplicity. (As for the economic impact of such a project: we do want technology to make people more productive, don't we?)

Thus the path toward simple PCs must be walked by users and user advocates, in the form of service or consulting firms, that will work on this issue. Creative Good will be one of these firms, and we will lead the charge - under our "bit literacy" banner - toward making PCs, and other digital technology, simpler and more valuable for users.

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