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2010/02/18

There's Something To This

Ed Finkler (aka @funkatron and the developer of the AIR-based Twitter client Spaz) wrote on the subject of the user experience.
These people have better things to do with their days than tweaking out the spacing in their browser toolbars. A computer for them is a utility. One that is increasingly complex, and one that is used because it’s the only option for accomplishing certain things – not because it’s a good option.

It’s kind of like the Photoshop Problem: when people want to crop a picture, we give them Photoshop. Photoshop is a behemoth application with nearly every image editing and touchup function imaginable, and it is terribly complex. Now Photoshop is an impressive tool, but only a very tiny percentage people need the power it offers. The vast majority just want to crop their ex-husband from the photo and let their friends look at it. But even iPhoto, the poster child for Apps So Easy Your Grandparents Can Use Them, continues to pile on features and complexity.

When folks need an elevator, we should give them an elevator, not an airplane. We’ve been giving them airplanes for 30 years, and then laughing at them for being too stupid to fly them right.

I think we’re the stupid ones.
Forgive me if I am wrong, but I think there's crossover here with Jeff Atwood (@codinghorror) and his comments on netbooks.
They may be pieces of junk to Mr. Jobs, but to me, these modest little boxes are marvels -- inspiring evidence of the inexorable march of powerful, open computing technology to everyman and everywhere.

We have produced They may be pieces of junk to Mr. Jobs, but to me, these modest little boxes are marvels -- inspiring evidence of the inexorable march of powerful, open computing technology to everyman and everywhere.

We have produced a democracy of netbooks. And the geek in me can't wait to see what happens next.
There are a couple moves I can make from here. Don't know which is the best. So I will poke at it and try to find the right angle. Part of that angle is that the desktop PC is a dinosaur that's feeling the cold coming on. When I moved into my house, I ran CAT5 to the master bedroom. I crawled into the crawl space. I drilled holes through the floor and cut holes in the drywall. I bought a 2-foot long drill bit. I have not used that line in years. I have WiFi. I know the problems with WiFi, and how this means my neighbor can mess up my WiFi if his config is the same as mine (yeah, it happened) and I know that no wireless network will be as secure as a wire, but I don't care, because the win exceeds the lose.

My work is in a lab at a university. We have several instruments, tools to do science. Many of them are so complex and have computers to control them, and sometimes (not always) collect data from them. Dealing with these machines is a major part of my work day. One of the newer instruments came with a laptop. I groused, saying that this was small enough that someone could grab it, shove it in a bag and walk away, but it was put there. There's a lot to having a full-tower desktop PC that makes a whole lot of sense if you're going to push the full-power of the PC. If you expect to swap hard drives like a guitarist swaps strings, if you plan to add or shuffle PCI cards like a Vegas dealer, the full-tower case makes sense. If you're going to leave it sit, do it's business and whir, a laptop, or even a netbook, makes sense.

Similarly, if you're going to "compute", which in the modern sense means to browse the web, check mail, chat with friends and the like, wherever you might be, the end-all be-all of computer design circa 1999 on steroids is not going to be what you need. Weight, networking and power requirements lock you to one spot with desktop PCs, but are complete non-issues with netbooks. I have a reasonably smart phone. I have had an appreciably smarter phone. I don't walk around with the current best-of-class smartest phones (iPhone or Android). The one I have, a Samsung Instinct, is smart enough for much of what I do. It plays music. It plays video. It talks to my Google Calendar. It sends and receives mail. It isn't all the "computing" you will ever need, but it is a pretty useful subset. When my wife's netbook (and primary computer) went back to Asus for a repair, she relied on her phone and was able to do most of the stuff she needed to do.

I wouldn't want to develop on a netbook, and when I can, I use Synergy2 or the like to allow me to use a normal keyboard and mouse with mine. But I'm fine for tweeting and blogging and music and IM and such on it.

Years ago, I saw an article that compared and contrasted the workstation of 1990 and 2000. (I think. I can't find it.) You had a huge difference between the capabilities of the hardware ( 10baseT vs 100baseT, huge differences the amount of memory available, much larger drive sizes and processor speeds ) and stagnation in the
software ( X and a window manager holding a terminal window, into which you type via EMACS or VI and compile with gcc or the like ). If you do a similar comparison between the platforms of the common user vs a developer's setup, you'll get a big delta in both the hardware and the software. The computer the developer might be much faster than it was before, but it looks like a box with a mouse and a keyboard and a monitor, with a power cord and a network cord giving up to gigabit ethernet. The computer the end-user might look like that. It might have the HDTV as a monitor and a remote to serve as the mouse. It might be a netbook smaller than external CDROMs were five years ago. It might be a phone.

I flash back to the oil embargo of the early 1970s. This is where the definition of car that the US auto makers and the consumers diverged, leaving an opening for the Japanese car companies. I think it is clear that, hardware-wise, the industry is keeping up with demand, making smaller, lighter things with cupholders, but people used to having computers with two-tone paint and fins and big V8 engines (in this case, Steve Jobs and lots of programmers) are making the software like they used to. Like makes sense for them. Which is a great disconnect, which is where Ed's comment comes in. I think.

More later, when I can re-think this and force it to make more sense.