Sometimes simplicity is just too simple
by Alan Zisman (c)
1999. First published
in Vancouver Computes,
Have you seen Apple?s TV spot for its iMac computer?
The one where the
camera lingers behind a typical PC, focusing on the rat?s nest of cords
and cables, then moves to the back of an iMac, with just a few cords,
a tidy bundle.
It easily makes the point?the average computer (both
Mac and PC) is
a complex mess. Not something you want on display in your living room,
and with a seeming complexity that scares off a large number of
You never hear of Toaster User Groups, the way
computer users join (PC
or Mac) User Groups.
There?s a lot of appeal in the toaster model?just pop
in the bread,
push it down, wait a moment, and there?s the toast. Not much in the
world offers this kind of simplicity.
Still, there?s a reason why our computers don?t offer
ease of use? all my toaster does is make toast.
But let?s think about all the things we use our
Right now, I?m typing this article on my computer. At
the same time,
I?m using Real Audio to listen to the Sunday gospel show live on Radio
Free New Orleans, letting my computer replace a short wave radio, and
me news and music from around the world.
With the All-in-Wonder video card (from Toronto?s ATI
I can watch TV on my computer, save still and video clips, and even
a program?s closed-captioning into a sort-of screenplay. Software lets
the computer wait in the background until a program mentions a topic
interested in, and then start capturing the text.
Other software that came with my sound card (Creative
Live!) lets me compose music on my computer, or plug in a MIDI
play music live, and have the computer create sheet music right on
Of course, my computer can be used as a game system,
and having added
a 3D video add-on card, (the now long in the tooth Diamond
3Dfx card in my system), the graphics can approach those of a dedicated
(and much more expensive) video arcade system.
I can display on-screen slide shows of snapshots taken
with my digital
camera. Scan pictures and text, and convert text into editable word
documents. Edit photos (from whatever source), altering history or
My computer can listen to my mumblings, and once again
On a more prosaic level, it keeps track of the income
and expenses related
to writing these articles, and arranges them in a way that keeps my
and Revenue Canada happy. It combines text and graphics to produce
and attractive assignments for the children I teach, and lets my own
combine text and graphics to produce far more attractive homework and
than I could at their age.
Then there?s all the things we?ve started doing
on-line, from watching
space launches to reading government reports, to chatting with friends
and strangers, to gambling, checking whether the Bank of Canada is
money for us in abandoned bank accounts, to booking holidays to escape
Does your toaster do all that? I think not!
Yes, computers can be made simpler. Apple?s iMac (like
the one my editor
bought) shows one way it can be done?but its clean design is, at least
in part, achieved in trade for some of the functions I can get with my
add-in cards and tangled mess of cables. And computer software can
a lot of the complexity that is happening behind the scenes. Too often,
simplicity again comes at the cost of lack of options?but the best
offers users a variety of ways to work?letting users add functions as
Besides, in my house, the mess of cables is hidden
behind the desk.
Unless you?re filming an iMac commercial, once I?ve plugged them in, I
don?t have to ever think about them again. When you?re doing something
complex, and especially when you?re doing a bunch of complex things, a
bunch of cables is a pretty low price to pay.
And bringing us back to the world of household
appliances, it turns
out that computers, with their large displays and alphanumeric
are actually easier to use than at least some of our widely-used home
Not many of our computers have the clock continually flashing 12:00,
a large percentage of VCRs, for example.