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Entries in Design (1)


Technology and Toasters

My wife and I frequently talk about technology. I love it, she hates it. WHY? I think that the pace of change has been stunning over the last two decade and the new devices that are available continue to amaze me. (I love my toys)

I recall getting a new PC that was 486 DX4 with a 20 meg hard drive….I was the baddest dude on my street with the hottest machine, ( amongst me and my geek friends)—- Pathetic.

What that 486 did teach me was how to load all my own software, configure DLL’s, and triage all of the obnoxious cryptic Microsoft error/warning messages. Before I had my 486, I was living large with a 286 but no Windows only DOS. By growing up with DOS, I was forced to gain an understanding of how those infuriating boxes worked. I also managed a helpdesk and software installation. Good training for knowing how the x86 architecture operated.

On the opposite, my wife is a consumer. Her background was in the insurance industry and legal profession. Her expectation is that when she presses the button she is delivered a good or service. That is, a screen appears that is useful and does something she wants. The analogy we use is that her PC should be like a toaster. She hits the button and it delivers something warm, tasty and useful. It meets her needs. He issue is that she is constantly required to know things that the operator of toaster wouldn’t be expect to know. For example, to install software, do you need a CD, is it a flash memory or do you have to go to a website. YUK, for a toaster, you insert the bread hit the button- BAM you get toast.

There is a bewildering array of things that kids can do the family PC that leaves us wondering….how did they get the home screen to be size 40 pt font? Again, it requires knowing how to navigate and get things back to a ‘normal state’. For the toaster, you turn one knob lighter or darker- simple. Why can’t the PC be more like that?

AH HA you say, you should get a MAC… Why should I. Granted they look cool, work cool and are very stylish, BUT, everything we have and do is PC based. It would require a paradigm shift in the house for all users. PLUS, PCs have been commoditized. There is great competition in PC architecture that continues to drive innovation, improve capability and reduce cost. The same can’t be said for Apple. They have and continue to try and keep a stranglehold on their franchise. We’ll see how long that lasts. Look at the Iphone. Very cool but the competition is really heating up.

So, what is the point of this rant? PC’s have a long way to go to be user friendly. What I see is convergence: the ease of use of Apple’s interfaces and set up, the commoditized pricing, and continual delivery of faster, smaller, and more efficient. Hopefully, PC’s will become more like toasters. Push the button and it will deliver simply every time.

This post was prepared by John Manning, Associate Partner at Harvard Partners.
He can be reached at john.manning@harvardpartners.com