Forswearing geekiness

It's not just the 10-thumbed who tell the industry to simply simplify
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I have just measured the on/off/radio/alarm switch on the clock radio in the kitchen. The switch is a flat piece, in black with little notches hugging the side of the radio's black frame. It is 1/2 inch long. That is less than the size of this paragraph.

It is in the kitchen because I can't use it in the bedroom. It's too hard to use. My thumbs invariably switch it to the alarm part instead of the radio part: I expect Bob Edwards, and I get fire alarm. So I gave up and bought a clock radio that is slightly more user-friendly. But, truly, is there a worse appliance than a clock radio? I don't think so, and I include the computer, which is a close, a very close second.

I am tired when I go to bed, and I would bet most people are like that. You would think a clock-radio manufacturer would recognize that by testing clock radios in a dark room with tired people. It's just a thought.

I have come to realize that the clock radio is just a part of the problem I have with consumer electronics. Mainly, and I'm really not proud to admit it, I don't know how to use most of the things I have. Or better said, I don't know how to do most of the things my electronic devices can do. My cell phone comes with an 80-page book explaining the wonders it would perform if, perchance, I could memorize an 80-page book.

My computer has several books that are hundreds of pages long, prefaced with the warning that what I might read may not jibe, exactly, with the computer I have. When things screw up on my computer and on the Internet, gibberish appears to announce the error I've made. These messages seem pretty serious, some of them, but I really don't know.

Things don't work right: the computers, or the programs, or the logic. For example, to shut off my computer, I press a button called START.

To write this column, in Microsoft Word, I started in 10-point type. I was able to change that to 14-point type. But if I did something-I'm not really sure what-this would change to 10-point again. Let me try writing a date, my nephew's birthday. It's Oct. 22, though a little yellow line that has appeared while I typed the month tells me I should type in October 27, 2000. These are the helpful things a computer does that, truly, I don't want it to do, and it reminds me of the bazillion things it doesn't explain that I would like it to clarify.

Why do I write this? Because I would like to report that the computer industry, no joke, is run by people who, like the clock-radio industry, do more to turn me off than any of the 1,000 bad Web sites out there.

It may be harmful to my career to confess this, but I am not going to spend my time using an appliance that is just as likely to frustrate me as to satisfy me, send me signals I can't decipher, and issue commands I can't fulfill.

Simple is a virtue. I know how to turn a newspaper page to get to the next story; that's about all I have to do.

The Internet is simple, too. Just not as simple. Online, I know how to press the back key on the computer and anticipate the pop-up ad that invariably obliterates the page, and I know how to take my mouse and delete that, and then press the mouse again and get what I'm looking for, and so on. That was fun about four years ago.

The computer manufacturers, the ISPs, the programmers don't work the same turf, don't speak the same language, and most of all don't really care.

So here's the message to Internet cheerleaders: Get your act together. Have a conference in which the agenda item is not about how sure you are of success but why you've failed so far. Quit congratulating yourself. Generally, most of the "successful" Net sites have the importance of an episode of Pamela Lee Anderson's
V.I.P.

Or feature her.

Reinvent the Net. Because the real reason Internet sites are failing all over the place is not just that the business plans are faulty, although that's a start. Really, it's because, unless an Internet user is prepared to become a geek, the risk-time, patience and intelligence-is rarely worth the reward.

Bednarski can be reached at pbednarski@cahners.com or at 212-337-6965.

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