Talking heads and helpful help

Within 10 years we'll be talking to our computers. That's Bill Gates' latest prediction, made at a Gartner conference last week, where he allowed himself to be interviewed by Gartner head Michael Fleisher.

Within 10 years we’ll be talking to our computers. That’s Bill Gates’ latest prediction, made at a Gartner conference last week, where he allowed himself to be interviewed by Gartner head Michael Fleisher.

Of course, in answering the question of which IT innovations would gain prominence within the decade, Gates failed to acknowledge that we already do plenty of talking to our computers –- although typically in unprintable language.

I had such an experience a week ago. My DSL connection went west after the home PC crashed -– a much rarer event, I have to say, since it was upgraded from Windows ME to XP Pro. Another family member had been driving the PC at the time. As my Saturday got used up with fruitless attempts to get back on the internet, I was ready to blame dodgy game servers and all manner of other mischief for the problem.

Neither Telecom, which provides the phone line, nor Xtra, the ISP, was prepared to help because attaching my notebook PC to the DSL router had established the service was working fine. The problem had to be with the PC. Then it crashed again. And lo and behold, the network connection was live once more.

Needless to say I’d done a lot of non-Gates talking to the computer in the course of trying to get it to work again. With one of his products implicated in my wasted weekend, I’m glad to hear he’s intent on improving computer usability.

As one of his New Zealand executives told me during the week, end users of IT –- all of us: home users and businesses –- don’t want complicated systems that go wrong and need constant repair. “What people want is chocolate cake.” He admitted that the industry -– and he didn’t attempt to exclude Microsoft from culpability -– was good at delivering “Flour 2.0” and “Sugar 2.0” but the cake is all that people want, and they aren’t particular about what is in it.

I think he’s right that we want someone else to do the baking for us, but the analogy is stretched a bit far by suggesting we don’t care about the ingredients. Sugar tastes good but we’ve learnt too much of it is bad for us. Similarly, the wholesome appeal of open source products as part of the IT mix is catching on among the health -- and budget -- conscious.

Gates isn’t just envisaging talking computers. He’s also looking forward to a time when the security woes of today will have receded into dim memory. I might add to that, on the basis of my recent experience, that I don’t have to die and go to heaven before it becomes the norm for service providers to do as their name implies. My conversation with the Microsoft man also ranged over the oddness of the job title “customer care representative”, as though no one else needed to bother.

The helpdesk interactions I had in the course of recovering from my internet outage were a mixed bag. Telecom’s access support was great: I rang the 0800 number and went straight through to a knowledgeable techie. Unfortunately, he soon worked out the line was fine and that I should be talking to the ISP, Xtra. The less said about that, the better. Can I suggest, though, that Telecom would be doing itself –- and its ISP customers -– a favour by putting all support calls through to the access help team.

Doesburg is Computerworld’s editor. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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