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TECH TALK: The Network Computer: Information Appliances

October 1st, 2004 · No Comments

One of the reasons for the enduring appeal of network computers is the inherent importance and complexity in todays computers. We cant live with computers, and we cant live without them. We long for something better, something more humane. And the dream endures.

In a book entitled The Invisible Computer (published in 1998), Don Norman wrote:

Do you really want to use a computer? Do you want to use a word processor? Of course not. The fact that you think you do is the triumph of marketing and advertising over common sense. Now, maybe if you are a confirmed technology addict, or a computer programmer, sure you love using computers, but not the rest of us. We want to get on with our lives.

I don’t want to use a computer. I don’t want to do word processing: I want to write a letter, or find out what the weather will be, or pay a bill, or play a game. I don’t want to use a computer, I want to accomplish something. I want to do some activity, something meaningful to me. Not “applications,” not some bizarre complex computer program that does more than I ever want to know about and yet doesn’t really do exactly what I need. I want computing that fits my activities. I want the technology hidden away, out of sight. Like electric motors. Like the computers that control my car.

Computers ought to be like the embedded ones that tell you how far you can drive with the fuel remaining in the fuel tank. Invisible, automatic, and useful. It’s invisible, so you don’t have to do anything to it. It provides valuable information. Start driving more efficiently, and the remaining distance goes up. Start driving less efficiently and the distance goes down. It wouldn’t be difficult to add a time estimate: “Twenty minutes to empty.”

This is the way the fuel tank meter ought to be: get rid of the current gauge that tells what fraction of the fuel tank still has fuel in it and replace it with one that says how far or how long we can go. Notice too that this computer is very limited in its functionality: it tells the range of driving with the remaining fuel. Nothing more, nothing less.

This is the way computers ought to be, not just in the car, but in the home, at schools, and in the office. Useful for doing things, for getting answers, for having fun, presenting us with the information we need to know, information we can use directly without further thought. Under this model they will be far easier to use. They will be designed specifically to fit the task, to fit the needs of their users. This also means that they will be specialized, so we are apt to need many of them. No problem, because they will be like all our other appliances: we buy just the ones we want, just the versions that fit our lives. Their simplicity and utility make up for their specialization.

The major problem with today’s PC is that of complexity. The complexity of the PC is pretty fundamental: it is built into its foundation. There are three major reasons for the complexity: the attempt to make a single device do too many things; the need to have a single machine suffice for every person in the world; and the business model of the computer industry.

Don Normans solution was specialised devices what he termed as information appliances: Devices that fit the person, that fit the task. Devices that are easy to use, not only because they will be inherently simpler, but because they fit the task so well that to learn the task is to learn the appliance. While information appliances are not exactly the same as network computers, the thinking is identical to simplify computing as we know it.

A couple weeks ago, Jim Smith suggested we look at the toaster for inspiration.

Monday: Application-Specific Computing


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