Sometimes simplicity is just too simple

by Alan Zisman (c) 1999. First published in Vancouver Computes, February 1999

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, in 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 potential users.

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 computer world offers this kind of simplicity.

Still, there?s a reason why our computers don?t offer a toaster-like ease of use? all my toaster does is make toast.

But let?s think about all the things we use our computers for.

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 bring me news and music from around the world.

With the All-in-Wonder video card (from Toronto?s ATI Technologies), I can watch TV on my computer, save still and video clips, and even capture a program?s closed-captioning into a sort-of screenplay. Software lets the computer wait in the background until a program mentions a topic I?m interested in, and then start capturing the text.

Other software that came with my sound card (Creative Lab?s SoundBlaster Live!) lets me compose music on my computer, or plug in a MIDI keyboard, play music live, and have the computer create sheet music right on screen.

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 Monster 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 processor documents. Edit photos (from whatever source), altering history or creating fantastic pseudo-realities.

My computer can listen to my mumblings, and once again output reasonably coherent text.

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 accountant and Revenue Canada happy. It combines text and graphics to produce clear and attractive assignments for the children I teach, and lets my own children combine text and graphics to produce far more attractive homework and projects 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 holding money for us in abandoned bank accounts, to booking holidays to escape February?s gloom.

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 disguise 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 software offers users a variety of ways to work?letting users add functions as they need them.

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 keyboards are actually easier to use than at least some of our widely-used home gadgets. Not many of our computers have the clock continually flashing 12:00, like a large percentage of VCRs, for example.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan