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PC Usability
by Juan C. Dürsteler [message nº 50]

PC Usability is questionable. In the future, computing will be centred more on what the user does than on what the computer can do.

Since the beginning of the personal computer 20 years ago with Apple and IBM, things have changed a lot. First PCs had 16Kb of RAM, ran at 4.77 MHz and used 10Mb hard disks or even just 2 floppy drivers. Their initialisation was almost immediate and they were quite simple. From the graphical standpoint PCs were very rudimentary (320x240 pixels, 16 colours) and the user interface was a command line, that you had to learn with certain difficulties.

Nowadays, the usual PCs run at frequencies of around 1GHz and you can get them at even higher frequencies. Typical RAM is 64Mb and buying a new hard disk under 20Gb can be difficult. Graphic cards allow you to visualise dynamic graphics with high realism, which has created a large video-game market.

Nevertheless, this astronomical increase in power, storage and graphical processing doesn't stop us from suffering an increasingly annoying plague in the form of chronic software instability, an increase in the difficulty of using programs and the proliferation of features that you almost never use.

As an example, each time my son plays with one of his video-games I restart the PC, since I know that afterwards MS Outlook will refuse to send my e-mail and some other program will prefer to "commit suicide", rather than coexist with the computing debris left in the memory by the video-game. The level of complexity and lack of robustness is such that it's not worth trying to discover where the problem is. You simply shut down the PC and switch it on again. An exasperating usability fault that would be unacceptable in any other device but one that all of us coexist daily with.

Gary Chapman, professor of the University of Texas and columnist of technology and society of the LA Times wrote not long ago an article on the problem. For Chapman the simplicity of use and robustness of the paradigm that the PalmPilot exemplifies is an example to follow.

The PalmPilot comes on instantaneously, without a long initialisation sequence. It shows all the programs on its first page. The basic programs don't do a lot of things but they do them well and you learn how it works almost immediately. Surprisingly enough, it's very difficult to make them hang (in two years I've hung it only once, with a shareware program) and losing the work of the last two hours is almost impossible. Moreover the batteries can last weeks.

For Chapman, although entering text is bothersome and the size of the screen makes it difficult to use graphics, it seems that a new computing paradigm is beginning to make itself known. As Ben Shneiderman, of the University of Maryland, says "The old model of computing was about what computers can do" while the new model of computing "is about what users do".

Shneiderman himself has launched an initiative called Universal Usability devoted to treating this problem. For now, given the monopoly of the large, unstable and bloated feature software companies, it doesn't seem that the problem is going to improve in the near future.

What can you expect from a system that when it starts without an attached keyboard says "Keyboard error or no keyboard present, press F1 to continue, DEL to enter set-up"?

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