Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The PC, more than ever a step in the wrong direction.

More and more lately when I go to the grocery store people are checking themselves out without the help of a cashier. RFID devices could get us to the point where we just roll our cart up to the checkout place and are immediately presented with the bill.

Here is wisdom.

When I got out of computer science school many years ago I saw my job as (among other things) putting rooms full of people with adding machines out of work. I didn't lose any sleep over this, because I knew that this wouldn't happen over night. Most of those adding machine people would find other work, some of them would retire, some of them would die. It's very hard to make a case for doing things less efficiently when the option to do them more efficiently is before us.

This progress continued, and has continued over the years so that many other things (like running cash registers) can now be done by computers and their programs.

But a lot of regression has also taken place. Computers are used for so many things now, and some of those things are of questionable value (to me). It seems more and more that we have circled the barn and now we simply have rooms full of people with PCs on their desks instead of calculators. Furthermore, those PCs are a lot more difficult to maintain than the calculators were. The calculators were "plug and play" devices, while the computers only claim to be so.

I've worked in organizations where there were rooms full of people "repairing" PCs that no longer worked and that often meant re-installing software or vacuuming dust-bunnies out of the interior, and I think to myself "have we really made things better in the long run?"

I think of the last place I worked where there are dozens of programmers, and when you add in the QA people, documentations specialists and people that coordinate their activities, we are into the hundreds. That doesn't include those "repair" people, or the network administrators, or the guys that run cables from cubicle to cubicle, or wheel replacement PCs around on carts, nor does it include the people who go into the field to install the application (which is the farthest thing in the world from "plug and play"). And what does this incredibly complex system do? It keeps track of lists of people names and addresses and various other and sundry bits of information about them. That's it. There is no accounting aspect, or banking component, no artificial intelligence, no medical diagnosis, no space shuttle launch subsystem. Thousands of people to do dead simple stuff, that if it had to be done on bits of paper using pencils and typewriters could probably be done with fewer total resources.

While "we" in the computer industry have done a great number of things to save people time and energy we have more than made up for it in the time and energy wasting infrastructure that "we" claim is needed to accomplish it all.

The computer industry is way overdue for a re-think, or maybe it's a think that should have happened in the first place but didn't in our enthusiasm to have a computer on every flat surface on the planet. Steve Ballmer says we need a $100 PC. Bill Gates says that the computer is the network. Larry Ellison said that the PCs days are numbered, and hundreds of wealthy Open Source advocates running their own businesses agree that software should be free. So where is the disconnect between what these people say and how they make their living? Is there some mysterious "invisible hand" of technology that defeats the average user's desire for simplicity as well as the best efforts of these captains of industry? Or are they just lying to us?

My observation over the years is that hardware keeps getting better and better, by leaps and bounds, but software continues to get worse. Software has gotten bigger, slower, and harder to use in many respects. We have traded simplicity and efficiency for more color schemes and options we never use or use rarely. We accept without questioning that machines take minutes, or at best many seconds just to "start", more time still to "shut down" and much more time in-between to be updated, scanned, cleaned, defragged and ultimately re-installed. While an off the shelf department store home stereo component today boasts better specs than a similar device costing thousands of dollars in the 60s, we haven't quite seen the same evolution in computing. Yes, the hardware has gotten cheaper and better by whatever detailed measurement you care to apply to it, but those improvements have been more than gobbled up by the complexity and fragility of the software running on it. For too many people, using computers has gotten harder, less rewarding and more expensive.

Which of us are part of the solution, and which are part of the problem either by participation in an industry with no clear direction or by a careless disregard for how we spend our time and money? When I see those totally automated check-out machines I get a good feeling about what technology can do. But more and more as I watch and hear about people struggling with their computers I am reluctant to admit that I ever had anything to do with their proliferation.

The solutions seem so obvious to me, but more and more I don't think people I used to work with even see a problem and people just growing up with what we have don't even have a clue what progress was being made before the "PC revolution."








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