The PC Industry's Forgotten Market: Grandpa

Summary:It seems to me that Senior Citizens are a widely ignored market by the computer industry.

"Question Number 58: What is a File?"

In the past, my Mother-In-Law has been the subject of a number of different columns.

I used to have a number of yearly maintenance issues with her older computers that ran on Windows XP, and it was a very bumpy ride for a while with Windows Vista, but ever since I've migrated her to Windows 7, put her on automatic updates and Microsoft Windows Security Essentials, it's been pretty much problem free.

These days, she might call me or my wife with a fairly simple computer question, and it's been relatively easy to deal with. My Father-in-law, however, is another matter entirely.

I've discussed Bob the Destroyer before. Anything that is related to Bob and his computer activities pretty much always means bad news.

Over the weekend I got a phone call on my wife's cell. We were in the car, heading into the city to do some holiday shopping and to go see the Angry Birds.

It was my Mother in Law. My wife was driving, so I answered it.

"Your father's laptop, it's making weird buzzing noises."

"Well, unplug it and turn it off. I'll come look at it after you get back from Florida in a few weeks."

"I did try to turn it off, but it won't. It's still making weird noises".

"So flip it over, and pull out the battery."

"I can't seem to figure out how to do that."

"Screw it. Shove it in the garage so you don't have to hear it, it will be dead within four to six hours."

"Oh that's a good idea. Great, so does that mean that Dad needs a new computer?"

"Yeah. It probably does, it was a cheap machine and it isn't worth fixing."

"Love you. Bye."

I then came to the full realization that sometime in the near future, I would now have to prep a new laptop with Windows and teach Bob, yet again, how to use the thing. And he'd find another way to break it. Again, again and again.

At age 74, Bob isn't getting any better when it comes to technology. We can talk about preventative measures to secure Windows systems until we are blue in the face, but the guy has a talent for messing up computers. He won't learn good user practices no matter how much you try to teach him. And I don't think it even matters that it's a Windows box. If I gave him a Mac, he'd probably figure out how to mess that one up too.

The only benefit to him having a Mac is that he could drag the thing into an Apple store and torture some poor bastard in a blue t-shirt at the Genius Bar, and they can charge him some ridiculously expensive surcharge to bring it back from death each time. And I could (legitimately) claim to be a complete Mac ignoramus and play stupid each time he asks me if I can fix it instead.

This would be a viable option, except for the fact that Bob needs a laptop computer, and Macbooks aren't exactly cheap, even refurbished. And they are total overkill for a 74 year-old ex securities trader whose computing needs are centered around Web browsing, email and playing with his digital camera.

Also Read: Why Old People Still Like Their PDAs

About four years ago, I experimented with giving Bob an Ubuntu Linux machine. It worked quite well for about a year, until that system also eventually dropped dead. Then he ended up with his current $400.00 Acer Aspire One, that originally ran on Windows Vista and then later Windows 7 Home Basic, which has now apparently chosen to commit suicide rather than continue to serve its cruel master.

This also happened to his pet Oscars, which gorged themselves until they couldn't fit in their tank and eventually jumped out and plummeted their untimely death.

Do you see a pattern here? I do.

So the issue isn't really what kind of a PC Bob is going to get. He's going to get a cheap Intel laptop. I'd consider getting him a netbook or a tablet like the iPad, but the screens on most of these devices are far too small for a senior citizen.

The real problem is that any operating system of sufficient complexity is a bad choice. Period.

Frankly, I'd love to give Bob Chrome OS. I mean, it's totally maintenance free, all the apps and the data are Cloud driven, and you can't break the OS even if you try. Google has engineered the Cr-48 notebook so that it's virtually impossible to screw up.

The Cr-48 would be nearly ideal if it weren't for the fact that you have to be picked by Google in order to receive them -- they can't be bought anywhere, and also the 12" screen might still be a tad small for Bob.

What I really want is an installable version of Chrome OS, or for someone to sell me an inexpensive ($300 or less) Chrome OS laptop with a 14" or 15" screen. The problem is that you can't get a Google-sanctioned Chrome OS installer, and nobody makes laptops that run on Chrome OS yet.

Also Read: MFD Printers Are Hell, And So Is Family PC Tech Support

Sure, there's the Chrome OS builds by "Hexxeh", and they look pretty good, although development appears to have slowed down. There's also Ubuntu Netbook Edition, but even with all the permissions locked down, it still has the potential to get messed up by the end-user.

Another option that looks promising is Jolicloud, but I haven't had the chance to test it out yet. Peppermint OS is another Ubuntu derivative which has additional potential, but from what I've seen from it, it still appears to be too complicated for Bob.

It seems to me that Senior Citizens are a widely ignored market by the computer industry. Sure, I've seen a number of very tech-savvy Boomers and older folks. A good number of them even helped to create the technologies we take for granted and use today. But these aging PC Yodas are few and far-between.

Most older folks want to just (reluctantly) use their computers, and they have limited or no understanding of the dangers of malware and the myriad of other things that can cause their systems to malfunction.

There is also the other thing that we don't want to talk about but we all have to accept. As these folks age, they make a lot more mistakes on their systems which create immense headaches for the people they enlist to fix them -- which usually means friends and family members, and poor bastards like me.

So something like Chrome OS on a big-screen laptop or a thin client device connected to a large monitor would be the ideal sort of platform for the vast majority of Grandpa Bobs out there. But these products don't exist. Yet.

What sort of computer or device should Bob the Destroyer get next? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Hardware

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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