On The Nature of Computers

With the news of Steve Jobs’ departure from Apple, I am reminded of all the things he did to world of computers that has changed everyones life.

In the early days of computers, there was one choice for a Personal Computer: IBM. It was a white or beige box, with a green on black TV-style screen sitting on top.

To make it work, you had to type commands at the blinking cursor. There is a reason why all highly-skilled computer people are called “wizards”. If you knew what you were doing, you looking like a wizard from a fantasy novel casting a spell; writing arcane formulae on the magic screen. If you were successful at your invocation, the computer did something; often inscrutably.

And then, 10 years later and a century of drudgery later, came a computer whose very screen said “Hello.” Just by looking at it, you could tell that the user would not have to be a wizened old man performing arcane rituals just to turn on a program.
This was, of course, the Macintosh; a computer so simple a normal person could use it.

Steve Jobs always made pronouncements, not just announcements. One of the first things he did after being allowed to come back to Apple, was to say “The floppy disk is dead.”
At the time, every computer came with a floppy disk. How else could you save your work to a transportable medium?

At the time, everyone in the PC world, including myself, scoffed at this obviously flawed pronouncement. But in the course of time, the floppy disk did die; even though you can still buy computers with floppy disks in them. Or at least holes for the drive should you wish to put one in.

You may have noticed, the Windows based computer world is not exactly big on innovation. Its like taking a basic car frame, chassis, engine, suspension, wheels, etc., and putting different body shells and interiors and it and selling that car as every type available: Ford, Corvette, Ferrari.
You can gussy it up however you like, but its always the same thing underneath.

Macs are similar to PCs in this way, but instead of just saying “here’s a new outside; have fun”; Apple, meaning Steve, took some ideas and ran with them, often opening up entirely new market as he did so: the All-in-one computer, the iMac; the incredibly tough laptop; the incredibly light and thin laptop; the all-in-one pocketable computer and internet device, the iPhone, the iPad, etc.
You get the idea.

Apple has, for a long time but not always, taken great risks with trying new products. A famous flop was the Newton.
Famous for its bad design, and amazingly bad handwriting recognition.
But, it was a thing no one had tried before. And after its famous flop, companies sprang up in its wake trying to do better.

Palm, anyone?

So, today, what is the nature of computers?

Are they frustratingly hard to use, and inscrutable when the unusual happens? Or are they rainbow-hued delights that say “what you want to do is right there on the screen”?

When they break, and they all do, even the rainbow-hued delights of intuitiveness, what can be done about it?
Do you unplug it and take it to the manufacturers retail store and service center, or do you call up a number that takes you to a land of gibberish and incomprehensibility, where you are told to do the same thing (that you have already tried) over and over again?
Or do you have a repairman that come in and charges by the hour?
(Hmmm, who could that be..?)

The nature of computers today is one of magic and wonder, as well as frustration and drudgery.

On the one hand we have the tool that makes modern life possible (though some would disagree), and on the other hand we have a tool that make modern life enjoyable.

Do we take the one that is all things to everyone and enjoys great adaptability and expandability, because it is able to do anything we ask of it, or do we take the one that is easiest to use and might reduce the stress level in our lives and allow us to concentrate on living rather than tool-induced frustration?
Even if that second road is the less well-paved road, and we might encounter potholes, blockades or other obstacles?

Ultimately it is up to the end-user to decide which nature of computers is the right one for them.
Versatility and frustration or freedom and speedbumps?

What is it for you?