I'm sure you've heard this before:

"Consumers want computers that are appliances, or appliance like."

What does this particular phrase mean?

1) Little to no maintenance
2) Basic knowledge is required to manipulate its functions
3) Repairs are easy, fast and cheap...
4) ...unless the entire machine needs to be thrown out and replaced

It's easy to see why people would want an appliance for a computer. Have you ever heard a relative ask you for their refrigerator to be fixed? It actually sounds minimalist, to a degree, to want a machine like this.

My only issue with an appliance is that strictly in the theoretical sense, a computer cannot and never will be an appliance. Every person uses a computer differently - the more we try to limit the instructions a computer can be given, the less useful a computer becomes. Don't be distracted by the pretty language; appliance is simply another word for "limiting the functions to manufacturer's orders."

I've heard arguments that we should ditch the folders and files paradigm and go into a more iOS like system, where the application deals with the data itself (an appliance-like system). But then you get into the issue of having programs share data among each other. How would we do this, so that programs could transfer and read each others data? Well, we make a common API, right? Oh, I've got a good one, you may have heard of this: it's called the "My Documents" folder, or even "/home/user" on some computers.

I've also heard the argument that "Users shouldn't have to learn how to use or run a computer. These things should just work."

Could things be less complicated? Sure. You won't hear me speak ill of actual progress in design. However, with all of the complicated things a computer does on a daily basis, it's a wonder a computer is generally regarded as "too much work for me to learn." A computer does your taxes, helps you type documents quickly as well as create many other types of fantastic things, browses web pages on a vast and global scale, plays every sort of media imaginable including movies, games and music, keeps data on you and your family in ways most people don't realise, and all together has become the single most powerful object in households today.

With this breadth of creation and consumption, you're going to have to introduce complexity. There's no way not to. How much you introduce is correlated to how many tasks you do on a computer.

If you want an appliance, you'll be limiting yourself to a very focused set of tasks based on, not your choice, but the choice of the manufacturer. As much as I like the Kindle, it is an appliance more than it is a computer. It does a very limited set of actions that, while are expertly chosen, are not in my control. Same with an MP3 player. And we know that even devices this limited still have the same issues of complexity and simple failure that computers do. Kindles crash, MP3 players crash, my iPod touch crashed when I had it. Problems happen.

Furthermore, the appliance idea also stems into not having enough power to fix your own problems. Hardware issue? You better hope the manufacturer can fix it for you, for a nominal fee. And you can't do what I did with my computers - I took lots of old computers, found the best parts in all of them, combined them into a mega machine, and I still use it to this day. I can replace any failed component for $40 or less (usually only $10). Try doing that with an Xbox, which is arguably the best executed appliance concept in the past ten years.

Can we expect users to learn to use the machine that more or less runs modern society? I guess not. However, complexity is derived from the actions we choose to do on a given device. Limiting that set of actions, however, or giving power to a corporation for them to make the choice for us, seems to be the wrong path to tread. There are good things to complexity.

No comments: