Sep 4, 2006

the sad state of computing

I consider myself a technically savvy guy when it comes to computers. I typically build my own so I know my way around the hardware and software. I don't find them particularly intimidating on any level. So this weekend was a really eye opener for me.

On the recommendation of yours truly I suggested that my inlaws let me buy them a new computer. Their old Studebaker of a PC was about 8 years old, unable to upgrade to the latest security updates (it barfed), and was causing me and my wife substantial grief when trying to get anything done on it. They agreed.

We made the usual rounds - Best Buy, CompUSA, OfficeDepot, Costco, etc. Each had pretty much the same presentation philosophy - a shelf with a smattering of low end to high end computers at relevant price points. Intermingled with the computers were 'deals'. Bundled deals, mail-in rebate deals, etc. Now as someone who had a good idea of what these inlaws needed in terms of computing specs and knew what the specs meant I found it downright impossible to find a computer that fit their needs. There were no computers for 60 year olds. These people didn't need 200 GB hard drives. They actually had no files to transfer over so 10GB would have been fine (yes you read that correctly, no files. I checked). Did they need a DVD writer? No. Did they need 1 GB of RAM? No. But if you went to the low end systems then there was something invariably missing. It didn't have a 5 or 7 in 1 card reader. It didn't come with a decent LCD screen (>15") that older people with poor eyesight kind of need. And the CPU was always just anemic Celeron type crap. They're old. They don't need to see sand timers spinning around as the years pass by.

I eventually bit the bullet on something far too overpowered. But it had the key things they needed. Then I put it all together for them. Again this was quite easy but I was struck by how completely screwed they would be if they had to do this. Take the LCD screen. It had an analog and a digital cord included but the computer only took an analog connection. Fine. I'm setting it up so these things didn't matter.

Next we boot up. This was the biggest shock because I haven't purchased a computer for 10 years now. I had no idea the desktop was like driving down the interstate. Icon after icon of what effectively were digital billboards. AOL 3 month trials. Anti-virus 3 month trials. Useless software that was already built into the OS. On and on it went. After updating the OS I spend 4 hours cleaning up the software library. Four hours! What is this piece of shit software and can I delete it? On and on it went. How is this any way to treat your paying customers?

After I flattened the system I then thought of some easy but useful things I could set up for them. I installed Foldershare so we could put photos onto their computer from afar. I then was greeted with the blank look deer get from bright lights when I mentioned 'cut and paste'. Clearly my inlaws thought I was talking about d├ęcollage by their bewilderment at this phrase. Now I could have taken a negative tone here but why on earth would they know what cut and paste meant. And as I showed them how to do it I realized my tutorial was sinking in about as well as Ben Stein's Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act lecture. "Right click, blah blah blah... And then I do what? Anyone?" I proceeded to uninstall Foldershare.

I think if Microsoft wanted to grow again they would make their own computer - The "my VCR blinks 12:00" computer. I'm not entirely sure how the OS would operate but I can guarantee a loyal and devoted consumer segment.

1 comment:

rPm said...

similar comments could be made about mobile phones, although that industry seems to be picking up on the fact that aging baby boomers might be a valuable market segment. an article in a recent NYTimes reviewed a few "simple" phones (i.e., no camera, no text messaging, no quad-band-4G-VoIP-GSM blah blah blah). the only one that looked remotely simple enough was the Jitterbug. it also looks like Kyocera has a simple phone.

it'll be interesting to see if anyone actually makes an effort to do the same for computing. i doubt it, since this would effectively mean either designing a new OS or branching an existing one and allowing for KISS customization.