If computer makers only used some common sense

HOME COMPUTING

August 09, 1993|By MICHAEL J. HIMOWITZ

Most of the calls and letters I get from readers are simple complaints: Their computers are too hard to use.

When I was young and full of that old hacker vinegar, I would have scoffed at most of their trials. If they were real men (there weren't many women involved in those days), they'd figure it out, just like I did.

But I've mellowed, and now I see their point.

Despite all the talk about user-friendliness, usability testing and other buzzwords from today's computer makers and software publishers, a lot of people -- many of them very intelligent -- still say computers are hard to figure out. And I'll admit that after a decade of twiddling with the machines, I'm still often puzzled, or at least annoyed, by the hoops I have to go through to get software and hardware working properly.

My colleague Bob is a case in point. A writer by trade, he's a computer user, not a hacker. He doesn't care about how it works. He knows how to use his word processor; he's happy with it, and that's all he wants to do.

For five years, Bob lugged his trusty Toshiba laptop all over the world. It finally gave up the ghost last week when he was halfway through a book, with a deadline approaching. He needed a new machine.

To his credit, Bob spent some time shopping around and finally settled on a Compaq Contura, which I thought was a good choice. There was only one problem. In their effort to make the machine user-friendly, the good folks at Compaq set the machine up so it would start up running the Microsoft Windows graphical environment, with its friendly little pictures and icons.

But Bob doesn't do Windows. He doesn't know what to do with Windows. All he wanted was the unfriendly old DOS prompt, so he could load his old word processor and get on with making a living. But nobody at the so-called "superstore" where he bought the machine could tell him how to get out of Windows, or how to set the computer up so it wouldn't load Windows when he turned it on.

He even called the store's 900 technical support desk, at $3 a minute. After 10 minutes on hold while somebody "looked into it," hung up in disgust, put the computer back in its box and returned it. He wound up buying another Toshiba.

No idea what to do

It wouldn't have taken much work to solve Bob's problem, a little tweaking of the AUTOEXEC.BAT file that executes every time the computer starts up. But Bob had no idea how to do that, and nobody he talked to seemed to have the answer. And he lost a day or so of work, when all it would have taken was a decision by somebody in the "user-friendliness" lab to set the machine up to give customers a choice of Windows or No Windows.

Now consider my friend Fred, who delighted his son Bill by bringing home a jet fighter simulation. He followed the instructions, installed the game on his hard disk and started it up. Sorry, the screen said, not enough memory.

Fred was outraged. "What do they mean, not enough memory! This damn computer has four megabytes of RAM."

It turns out that old F-137, or whatever fighter it was, needed 600K of standard memory, which is more than most people get once they've loaded the Disk Operating System (DOS). It's possible to free up enough memory, if you're willing to read 10 or 15 pages of your DOS manual and edit your system configuration file, which to most users looks as if it's written in a cross between Pidgin English and Amharic.

After Fred had spent a couple of frustrating hours at the job, Bill called me. It only took me half an hour of coaching over the phone to figure out how to get the program running, and even then, it would only work if Fred was willing to forgo the use of his Windows word processor.

All this for a silly computer game. In fact, game publishers are the worst offenders. I once got a popular game called Wing Commander that came with five or six pages of instructions for tweaking arcane memory configurations just to get the thing running. With another program, an educational science game for kids, I spent an hour tinkering with various configurations till I got the two megabytes of expanded memory it needed.

Mac users not immune

Now I hear all you Macintosh users chuckling out there. You think your computers are so easy to use, compared to those crude old IBM-compatibles. Have you tried any new software lately?

A few weeks ago I bought a nifty educational game as a gift for the kids of good friends. I installed it on the hard disk of their Macintosh. When I tried to run it, I got an error message telling me it required Apple's operating System 6.0.5. Unfortunately, my friends had System 6.0.4.

This is an outrage, but it's common in the Mac world, where the operating system has been through more rewrites than a bad screenplay, and software publishers have no qualms about writing their programs specifically for the latest minor update. In the old, unfriendly IBM world, virtually every program on the market will run on DOS 3, which is six or seven years old now.

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