Celebrating personal computing's 20th

Every great once in a while a series of events conspire to make one more reflective than usual. In my case, it's the recent completion of a month-long vacation, the fact that this week marks my 40th birthday, and the realisation that this week also marks the 20th anniversary of the PC.

Every great once in a while a series of events conspire to make one more reflective than usual. In my case, it’s the recent completion of a month-long vacation, the fact that this week marks my 40th birthday, and the realisation that this week also marks the 20th anniversary of the PC.

I spent the last month driving around the Northeast visiting New York City; Lake Placid; Portland, Maine; Boston; and Nantucket in Massachusetts, with family in tow. Anybody who has done the family vacation thing knows how unrestful that experience can be, but I have to say everybody had a good time with minimal discord.

But what really struck home during this trip is that even after 20 years of touting the benefits of personal and corporate technology, this industry has made very little progress relative to the total size of the population. In other words, most people in the real world are still doing things the same way they did five to 20 years ago — regardless of the new marvels at hand.

To me, this all speaks to this industry’s inherent inability to make things that are easy to use.

In fact, even the people who find a way to use everything from handhelds and PCs all the way up to enterprise applications still complain at least once a day about the way something works. And those people who have the fortitude to persevere with arcane software are the minority of the total population. Most people simply give up and either use a particular device only when they absolutely have to or they simply avoid it all together.

Now, having said all that, things are not as bleak as they could be because every new generation of users turns out a higher percentage of people who are comfortable with the idiosyncrasies of technology. But by and large the industry has failed the majority of the people it set out to serve, and its growth should not be tied to the number of people entering the workforce after having had years of free time to master software applications.

The simple truth is that people who are successfully using computers today are probably doing so in spite of, rather than because of, user interface design.

And despite all the hoopla about voice recognition, this immature technology is a long way from going mainstream, which means that the current state of the user interface art is likely to be with us for quite some time.

This brings me to my birthday, which always puts me in mind of my father, who had a nice way of keeping budding egos in check. I remember a time coming home from school full of more hot air than usual after receiving straight A’s on a report card. This engendered the following response from my Irish father: “So you’re the best of the dummies.”

At any given point in time, that’s where most of us are. And that’s where we are as an industry as we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the IBM PC. Most of the stuff developed by this industry was designed by people who have no interaction with the average person. As a result, the acceptance of technology suffers.

We may have accomplished a lot, but we have a long way to go before we come anywhere near realising our full potential.

And at the tender age of 40, that probably goes double for me.

Vizard is editor in chief of Infoworld (US). Send email to Michael Vizard.

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