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Those who don't learn from history...

By:David K. Every
©Copyright 1999


In the beginning [1960's], there existed an Ivory Tower [metaphorically]. Computers were big-- the size of refrigerator, with another refrigerator (or four) next to it for tape drives, extra storage and cooling -- and computers cost a fortune. The ivory tower was usually a glass encased, locked room with air-conditioning, an elevated floor, argon fire extinguishers, and constant hums and clicks that prevented the denizens from having to actually listen to anyone else. This was the domicile of the "elite keepers of the computer" [IS/IT high priests] -- computers couldn't be trusted to just anyone after all.

If you wanted to do anything on the computer it required proper groveling to the great priests of the ivory tower (usually by screaming outside the door), "Oh, please lord master, could you give me some more space, allow me to run this program, or give me more 'time'"(1). This was a great arrangement... if you happened to be one of the IS/IT people that controlled the computer --but it sucked being a user.

(1) Yes, even your time on the computer was shared with other people -- both in total time, and how much time (attention) the computer would give you. You were only allowed to do as much total work, or have as much performance, as the priests felt you were worthy of. Since they were arrogant, they felt only they were worthy, and they'd give you only the table scraps so that you did not disturb their "work". (Many computer games were created and exercised by the IS types during this era).

Then the 70's came along -- with big hair, bad fashion, and the "Micro-Computer". These "little" computers were so small, and cheap (relatively), that literally anyone could own and control one. IS/IT types ridiculed these pathetic little "wimp" machines and figured no one could do real work on them -- they thought users needed IS/IT's fatherly control and "protection" (similar to the Mafia's form of "protection"). Within a decade the computing world got turned upside down -- Micro's (PC's) were as liberating as a bra burning -- and lasted untouched for about as long.

PC's allowed users to configure their own machines, and to control their own destiny -- no more groveling, it was FREEDOM! Users could install apps and add storage THEMSELVES -- they didn't have to share their computing power with anyone! It was great, it was wonderful, it is over.

The problem is that the people controlling the Micro-Computer industry -- companies like IBM and Microsoft, and all the IS/IT types -- didn't want to empower users, they wanted to empower themselves. They were able to evolve the simple concept of "Computers for the rest of us" back into complex systems that required specialists to figure out... those in control of the industry twisted reality to fit their goals, "Computers controlled by a few of us".

This trend meant that after a few years computers again became so complex, that we went back to those ivory tower priests for help (but now Bill Gates could afford to have his tower gilded in gold, and they all worshiped and tithed him). This trend may be getting worse -- and now we are going to create NC's (Network Computers) that bring back "the Big Iron"; with central servers, central storage, centralized control, and a few "administrators" (a popular euphemism for "priests of the ivory tower").

But before you get too cynical and doom & gloom, lets look at a few things --

  • How did it happen
  • Why did it happen
  • What does it mean

You may be surprised.

How did it happen?

Remember, these are over generalizations. True overall -- but not applied to individuals. There are exceptions in each category.

It is no one thing that lead to the complexity in out marketplace, and the whole state of computing. There were many factors and factions, all looking out for their own special interests. This is not really a blame game, just remembering our mistakes so we don't repeat them (or at least we can recognize when it is happening).

IBM made a lousy, hard to configure, antiquated, PC design (that took over the market because of the big three letters). IBM had a vested interest in complexity, because IBM made most of their money off the service of recommending, installing, maintaining and configuring machines. It didn't matter that it was bad (complex and poorly designed), IBM made money, and got to have their specialists to "set-up" the machines. IBM didn't want to make a "good" PC -- that would cut into their "real" computer sales (Mainframes). But the IS/IT people were already used to worshiping the great Allah "IBM", and so they were happy to bask in IBM's greatness, and pretend that their farts didn't smell. These people are like fraternity brothers getting spanked with the great alpha-omega paddle -- each swat bringing tears to their eyes, and a squeaky voiced plea, "Thank you sir, may I have another".

For a brief time the complexity was not so bad, and even understandable to most mortals -- but the chaos of the marketplace (and loss of control by IBM) guaranteed that the maelstrom would conquer order. Besides, if you don't design scalability in, chaos will result (and may result anyway).

IBM did not voluntarily give up control, and they did not try to make an "Open System". They lost control, then fought hard to gain it back and close the System back up (with PS/2's and OS/2) -- they failed. Once control was lost, there has been no direction, and little real evolution or innovation in PC's. It got much worse than even IBM intended.

Now everyone pulls in a different direction, most choices end up being the wrong choice (as one succeeds and all the others fail) -- so people have become reticent to change, or try anything new, since they've been bitten in the past whenever they made a decision. So know they delegate all the decisions to specialists (IS/IT). IS/IT avoids decisions by stalling until someone else tells them what to think (usually Microsoft ) -- to which they gleefully bleat and follow, secure that their decisions won't be good for the user, but great for them (and relatively safe).

Microsoft made a poor copy (stolen), of a lousy, hard to configure, antiquated, Operating System (CP/M). It didn't matter that it was bad -- it was still easier to learn than the the minicomputer OS's of years before, and it had IBM's support (and Billions of Dollars to create). Microsoft doesn't care, because they make money. Microsoft makes money selling the OS (that IBM paid them to create, and customers pay to be abused with), they make money supporting the OS and Apps (so they have a vested interest in keeping them complex), and they make money for upgrades when they fix the things that they did wrong in the first place (so they make sure to design in future obsolescence, complexity and errors, which mean profits).

It is actually a little more complex. Microsoft probably does not intentionally design in the thousands of flaws in architecture. They just slap together products (in any slipshod manner) as a way to gain the market -- they know that people will pay them later to fix those flaws. So there are no incentives for Microsoft to do it right, and many to do poor quality version first, and repair later. Of course it is pretty close to impossible to fix a bad design -- you just have to redesign. Microsoft doesn't know or care about that, they just keep bolting things on to add features, and make it more sellable, and will continue to do so, until the house of cards comes crumbling down, or until users demand better.

It is not evil on Microsoft's part (per se), there is just too much reward for their actions -- and they sell a product that IS/IT people want. That the rest of us don't want it is irrelevant, since we only say we don't want it... then people keep on buying it anyway. Many people want to play it safe -- and despite wasting millions of dollars every year on inferior Microsoft products, it is easier than thinking about things or taking a risk (and choosing a product that will save them money) -- so people buy Microsoft.

The Press, has no brains of their own, so they listen to the IS/IT people for guidance (not the customers). Imagine the press as a couple of high-school boys eagerly standing in line at that frat party, so eager to belong that they gleefully anticipating their turn when they can be spanks -- just like the others. So while the press is responsible for not helping the issue, and making our computing lives worse -- most of press is incapable of understand a complex devices like the wheel, let alone a computer. So they write what other people think (or what they were told to think), and sell those concepts as their own. Don't blame them, pity them -- for many of them, if they had an original thought, their heads would explode from the paradigm shift.

IS/IT people like computers that aren't too easy to use -- and they dislike Macs because they empowered users too much -- Job Security. They keep demanding MORE features, and more complexity (not better features or simplicity). Microsoft was not evil in catering to these goals -- just smart (business-wise). Microsoft was more than happy to screw the endusers with lots of complexity, unneeded features, and configurability, because it meant sales -- because this complexity is what IS/IT wanted. Most users don't want the complexity, and few use 1/1000th of the features available in a product like Microsoft Office, but who cares? This complexity keeps people enslaved to IS/IT to configure and maintain the machines (and answer question). It allowed IS/IT to generalize on one bad package, instead of a few good specialized ones -- which makes purchasing, administration and support easier for IS/IT, but usefulness of the computer (and software) is diminished for the users. But hey, "Who's making the decisions around here?!" -- it is IS/IT, and they are going to make decisions that are in THEIR best interests. Someday, I hope that management figures that one out -- but then if management knew what was going on, I'd expect the same spontaneous human-combustion problem that would plague reporters with a clue.

IS/IT just changed from being the keeper of the central computer, to the master of the network and ALL personal computers (and software). Now they are going to evolve us back to where we started from.

Users chose to make their lives easier, by giving up our freedom of choice. We chose to let others think for us, and we've gotten what we deserve. We decided that computers were just too complex, and so let others deal with it. So all users are responsible for being lazy, and getting what they deserve when they let others do their thinking for them. They wouldn't let a salesman decide what kind of car they should buy -- but they have no such convictions and personal interest when it comes to which Computer to buy.

Why did it happen?

It is obvious that IS/IT (the Ivory Tower, techno-geek intellectuals) wanted to feel superior and have value and security in their jobs. They were going to buy Software Packages and Systems that were not the easiest to use nor were the best for program for the task -- they chose what was best for THEM (which often meant the worst for users and for the company at large). Ironically, companies rewarded bad decisions by giving IS/IT more power, more money and more control -- eventually to the point where IS/IT has evolved from being a service TO users, to being in control OF users (and making the computing choices for companies). This is equivalent to allowing the fox to design your hen house, and paying him more (to fix the problem) based on the amount of chickens lost.

The more esoteric knowledge you needed to run a computer, the more valuable the computer elite is. Stupid-Knowledge (2), like needing to know about config.sys or autoexec.bat works makes them MORE valuable and feel superior -- and so they thrive on it. Microsoft caters to that. But neither Microsoft nor IS/IT is the biggest contributor to the problem.

(2) Stupid-Knowledge (tm), is my name for needing to know something that has no value at all (or shouldn't have). Like knowing how to fix up the config.sys file on a PC (or the hundreds of things like that), or having to know what three letter extension to add to file (to define what Applications will be able to us it -- stuff like that. The computer should know how to configure things for itself, some computers do (like Macs). So Stuid-Knowledge is knowing what you shouldn't have to know, and that no one would need if things were designed properly! It is false value -- it makes the people who know these things feel self-important or "smart", when the reality is if they were smart they wouldn't have to know this stuff in the first place (by choosing Systems that don't require it -- whenever possible). IBM-PC's (and clones) are the champions of Stupid Knowledge -- from the dip switches, to expecting user to know (or care) about what video card, sound card, or speed of the CD-ROM they have (etc.), IRQ's, Com-Ports, Win.ini, autoexec.bat, .reg files, and so on and so forth -- all stupid-knowledge. Macs have it too -- but a 1:100 ratio as compared to PC's.

IS/IT did what was in their best interests. Microsoft made programs that would sell to IS/IT. IBM and Microsoft designed bad systems that made them money in support and upgrades. But the people we should blame is us (the users). The users didn't protest, and didn't think for themselves. They have accepted bad software or bad hardware as good enough. They bought into the IS/IT type thinking, and furthered it. Instead of protesting and fighting for their interests, they followed and praised such stupidity. The fact that WindowsCE has sold a single unit for anything (other than for humor value) is proof of this. Users have said that learning (for themselves) is not important, and doing something right (efficient) is not important. They just want to get their work done, and are willing to give away their freedom (to IS/IT) so that they can remain blissfully ignorant.

Users are getting exactly what they asked for every time they go to IS/IT for support, or every time they buy a product that they know is bad (or they are too ignorant to know that it is bad), or every time they delegate a purchasing decision to someone else (or buy what someone else did, because it's easier than thinking for themselves).

What does it mean?

I don't know -- you tell me. I think the point is that we are still in control of our destiny and should (and can) choose our own futures.

Realistically, it is not all doom and gloom.

It takes time for a market to mature. At first cars were a complex toy -- with manual chokes, and manual starters (that only a man would operate, and would kill you if you weren't careful) -- sounds like Windows to me. It took decades before we figured out automatic starters, and automatic transmissions, and things that made the car into a transportation appliance -- and that made cars accessible to far more people (like Women and people that didn't want to be "tinkerers"). We are in the early stages of computing -- and heading for a great maturing period. It will come, and there is no stopping it -- IS/IT, and public misconceptions can slow it down, but it will come. In 10 or 20 years, computers will be easy to use "appliances" -- the only question left is whether that will come in 5 years or less.

There are already a few new types of computers that have been hitting the market that are learning to shoot towards that "ease of use" goals. These are NC's, PDA's or Appliance-Computers, and NPC's. The market is breaking up into specialized computers (more choices), and that means easier to use for certain tasks. Read What's an NC for more.

If things like eMates or other specialty computers take off, then it is proof that people want less complexity, and the market will respond. Hopefully consumers are wise enough to make the right choices.

NC's are proof that we are giving up more of our freedom to IS. But it is also a way of getting rid of much of the complexity for users. Let the specialists waste their time on Stupid Knowledge and Systems Complexities and make our computing lives even easier, so that we can get real work done. This makes sense in a corporate environment where you have the staff to handle your problems for you.

NC's are a way to reduce administration costs (for once), and remind people to focus on getting work done and spending all that time configuring or reconfiguring their machines. NC's will no more take over our personal computers, than Public Transportation (Busses, Trains and Planes) will eliminate the need or desire for Private Transportation (cars, motorcycles, small planes). There is room in this world for both, and a need for both -- but each has its own advantages and disadvantages.

NC's are not a single product for a single market -- not more than computers are. NC's are more a change of philosophy for computing -- from complex generalized systems that try to do it all (and so have to have the complexity to handle 10,000 different tasks), to specialized computer systems that are tailored towards doing specific tasks well. Different types of NC's will do different functions well, and satisfy different markets. In fact, the complexity of setting up a network of NC's, will probably be made easier than setting up a single machine is today.

So despite our missteps of the past, the computing market is wising up. The users are becoming more sophisticated and learning to keep their eyes on the goal. Despite the increasing complexity of computers, the costs have plummeted (while performance has skyrocketed) -- and the market is waking up to the fact that "ease of use has value". So computers are getting easier to use, despite becoming more complex.

Either the leopards are going to change their spots, or they are going to become endangered species -- and either way it is going to be better for most computer users. So I have a lot of hope for the future -- despite the missteps of the past.

Created: 11/01/97
Updated: 11/09/02

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