Why a Computer is Not Like A Toaster – And Why It Should Be

by Randy Murray on February 2, 2010

Recently my wife and I were having breakfast at a local diner and one of the two ladies who own the place and take turns waitressing noticed me checking email on my iPhone. With obvious pride she pulled out her own and showed it to me. She loved it. It was wonderful. But, she asked me, how do you get all of those apps on there that they show on TV? And how do you get music on here, too?

We chatted for a few moments and I tried to help her, but I realized that it wasn’t just that she didn’t know about the App Store, but she didn’t know that, to get the apps and music, she’d need to use iTunes; she’d need to know how to download iTunes onto her home computer, understand how to import apps and music to it using iTunes, that she then needed to hook her iPhone up to her computer to load apps and music onto it, or that she’d need to know, have, and use a USB port and a USB cable.

This is a bright and capable businesswoman, who owns and operates her own business and has her own computer.  What was missing was the specialized device knowledge that made the process easy, obvious, and simple for me.

For those of you who think yourselves special because you can set up your own computers (and I am one of them – I could build one from parts if I needed to), get over yourselves. You’re not so smart. It has nothing to do with intelligence. It’s simply training and experience, even if you’re self-taught. You have nothing to hold over those who don’t know how to do such things and don’t want to.

Personal computing has been stuck far too long in the hobbyist stages. They are complex, error prone, frustratingly buggy devices. Even the best, my beloved Mac, requires a surprising amount of expertise to set up and appear to be easy to use.

Computers are not appliances. But they should be.

There is a very small segment of the public that likes to tinker. For them, let them keep their user accessible boxes where they can fool with the components. Let them fiddle with the software configurations, muck about in permissions and drivers and scribble little pieces of code to accomplish arcane tasks. Knock yourself out.

But for the rest of us, give us something that does what we want without requiring prior certification, training, or instruction of any kind. I don’t want to have to figure out an interface metaphor. I don’t want to reconfigure, recompile, reroute, or reconnect.

I want what the iPad promises. A single, elegant device that does one thing at a time. It can be an infinite variety of devices, but each one with a simplicity and directness that anyone could pick it up and perform any common task. For uncommon tasks, things that require great expertise and practice, like composing music, drawing, filmmaking engineering, those tasks require powerful, complex tools. Those are the things that “workstations” are ideal for. But for everyday tasks, like reading, looking up information, organizing one’s day and tasks, for those things I want simplicity and elegance.

If I just want a piece of toast, I shouldn’t have to know how to build a toaster to get one.

Why a Computer is Not Like A Toaster – And Why It Should Be by Randy Murray, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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