I just can't believe the headlines recently — headlines like "Telstra: Make Telephone Callers Audible" and "ABC: Make Programs Interesting". Actually, I haven't really seen these anywhere, and wouldn't it be a shocking condemnation of those companies' performance if they did appear? (Although, come to think of it, that first headline is fairly appropriate if the subject of the article were cell phones — in your office how often do you hear the following after someone slams down the receiver: "Bloody mobile phones!") One headline I did see, however, was not all that far from these: "Ballmer: Make Computing Easier". The article went on to describe how Microsoft's president Steve Ballmer delivered this new initiative at a Windows Hardware Engineering conference. In just about any field, this might be another of those non-news events: "Flat Panel Displays Still Expensive", "Number of Web Users Growing — you know the type.
But for that kind of a direction to come from Microsoft at this stage of the game is, to me, a bit disappointing. Wasn't that what Windows was supposed to be in the first place? OK, so nobody gets it right the first time, so what about Windows 3.1? Don't be so harsh, you say? Then let's look at Windows 95 . . . or 98. After all those versions, why should we still have to listen to a speech from the manufacturer saying computing should be made easier?
I don't think there's a doubt in any PC user's mind that computing does indeed need to be made easier or more intuitive. A great many of the technical questions we get at PC Magazine Australia come not from people who are trying to fix a problem, but from people who want to know why it's so difficult to do things that should be fairly simple. Customising the look and feel of Windows (folder views, for example) still seems to give people a lot of trouble. Using Direct Cable Connection to connect to another computer (despite extensive Help files on the subject) is a killer.
And Plug and Play continues to stimulate users to write new definitions for the phrase (you've heard them: "Plug and Pray", "Plug and Play with the Computer Until You Get It To Work"). All this is not to say that nothing has improved.
There have been some interesting developments in Windows 98 designed to make tracking down problems easier. There are Troubleshooting Wizards. Then there is something included with Win 98 called Dr. Watson. This is a neat little utility that I knew nothing about until I was doing some troubleshooting of my own and just happened to stumble over it. The Dr. Watson utility takes a snapshot of your system which can be used to help zero in on problems that occur from time to time (and it gives you comprehensive configuration information, not to mention what tasks are running and other settings). And there's more: Automatic Skip Driver and Windows Report Tool are two ways you can reduce those calls to the Help Desk. But why aren't these kind of helpful features better promoted? Wouldn't that be the logical first step to "making computing easier"?
What I'd like to hear from you, dear readers, is what you think should be top priority in the quest for simplification. Come up with your Top Three Ways to Make Computing Easier and send them to me at email@example.com and we'll take a look at this subject again in the near future.
Brian Haverty is the editor of PC Magazine Australia and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.