Computer are becoming expensive toys for corporate kids

I have sometimes thought that perhaps my views on the computer frenzy are a little parochial.

These stirrings happened while I was gazing out across Kempenfelt Bay from the window of a penthouse – not mine I hasten to add. Mind you, a rather large tumbler of single malt scotch may have possibly influenced me; on the other hand it could have been the charming real estate lady who babbled on endlessly about the many hours she spends in front of her computer.

It suddenly struck me, while boggling at the view, that she must tappy-lackey her fingers on the keyboard, much as people used to do when those musical keyboard/piano/organ things were all the rage.

She was, in fact, playing her computer. So it would seem my view that computers are tools much like photocopiers, typewriters (where are they now?) and pneumatic drills is somewhat short of reality. Users, like myself, who get frustrated with software designers who give no concern to ease of use should come to terms with the fact that the personal computer has moved off to be an entertainment centre and, as such, competes with the hi-fi, TV-VCR-DVD and potted game devices.

From this we can assume that programs with poor design are rarely returned, just as music is rarely returned because of poor lyrics or sound quality.

The other day I returned a garden design program called Landscape-something-or-other put out by Sierra. My complaint was that the first thing one does in designing a garden is draw the lot. Thus a simple means of defining a, say, 135 by 235 by 125 by 200 foot lot should be easy.

All one needs to do is draw a square, click on a line, enter the length and, shazam, the lot takes shape. Now all you have to do is to squish the sides to match the actual physical shape.

But no. Sierra bigwigs had allowed the programmer to construct an input method that was most confusing. Not only that, but such a rudimentary first step was not described until page 28 in the manual, and this after dissertations on 3D and such.

Even on page 28 the confusing “lot-input” screen presented to the user was not pictorially represented and soon told the reader to go look at Chapters 2 and 6 on 3D backgrounds or backdrops or whatever.

In contrast, let me refer to System Mechanic ( This beauty is really easy to use and it even explains things in unabbreviated English. Instead of “Apply” it says, “Use optimum settings for your configurations” and instead of “Remove” it says, “Remove invalid uninstaller information.” You do not have to learn a new cryptic set of buttons.

However, it seems that the majority of PC users out there like to solve the mysteries of current software packages. They want Dungeons and Dragons games and thirst for new game-type challenges. What they use the program for is not important. When I envisage a PC player, I see a two-year-old child beating those plastic pegs into a plastic block with a plastic hammer.

Maybe I should get my electric drill out and start drilling dozens of holes in a 2 by 4, thereby playing with, rather than using, my tool.

The main concern, however, is how much of this play (oh no! Plug and Play!) syndrome is creeping into business.

Are companies buying Swiss Army knives so their staff can have fun working out what all the little gadgets are for?

Will it spread to my favourite hardware store where the salesman will entreat me with: “…and look, there is a screwdriver buried in the handle of the hammer, which also has an extension allowing you to prune fruit trees. Just look at the spirit level on the top so you know you are banging nails in straight. And, oh yes, it comes with a full instruction video which shows you how to use it to crack walnuts. Oh? You just want to hammer in nails?”

Unfortunately, Microsoft recognized that entertainment brought in bigger revenues than just humdrum tools and so each Microsoft package is slanted towards that direction.

Perhaps with the thankful break up of Microsoft we will get software companies that will work towards reducing the click density and multi-faceted way of doing the same thing 15 different ways.

Have you noticed the way they make simple things so complicated all in the name of “feature-rich” (that means check-box grotesque)? Next time you buy a program and you find it guilty of unnecessary clickity-clicks or confusing wordage – take it back and complain.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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