THE IMPOSSIBLE COMPUTER
Donald A Norman, author of The Invisible Computer (MIT Press, pounds 16), believes that the personal computer is so deeply flawed that it is beyond cure. Judging by the iMac, he could be right.
I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with the iMac as a product; although I would have preferred an innovative modern design. It's a bit late for the computer industry to be discovering postmodernism, and "a computer like the Jetsons would have had" is not a concept on which to build design greatness. But fortunately for Apple, I'm in a very small minority. My local dealer shifted 30 the first day, my neighbour just bought one to go with her three other Macs, and worldwide the industry is talking about 900,000 sales by the end of the year. This is good news all round. Users of the iMac will enjoy computing that is as straightforward and fun as it gets. Those in the twilight world of Windows will benefit from the incentive to compete and innovate that a reinvigorated Apple will provide.
As personal computers go, the iMac is Donald Norman's kind of machine. The subtitle, or rather first paragraph, of his book is "Why Good Products Can Fail, The Personal Computer Is So Complex, And Information Appliances Are The Solution". Apple knows all about good products failing, and one of its US television ads for the iMac includes the line that "PC" stands for "perpetually complicated". Norman (who used to work for Apple) argues the computer industry is stuck in a sort of prolonged adolescence, still obsessed with showing off how clever it can be. That would explain why it thinks the Jetsons are a cool design model, too.
The iMac is aimed at real people, who want a computer that you plug in and use, the same way you plug and use a TV or an iron. It doesn't have a floppy disk drive. Floppies are going the way of seven-inch singles, and a machine without a floppy drive is simpler and cheaper. The decision to drop the drive shows that Apple are treating the iMac as a consumer product, rather than an engineering project. This, in Norman's terms, is a sign of maturity. And this is where the iMac starts to get dragged back into computer adolescence. Most customers are already Mac users, and many want a floppy drive. I would too: it's by far the simplest way of backing up a single file, such as a letter. So already there are add- on drives styled to complement the iMac, along with a clutch of other peripherals trading on the assumption that the best thing for a relatively simple device is to festoon it with spaghetti as quickly as possible.
The urge to complicate is usually perceived as the urge to upgrade. Everybody knows the old saw that a computer is out of date the day you buy it, but it's rather bad form for companies on the iMac bandwagon to be pushing upgrades within a month of the machine's release. "Just bought an iMac?" inquires the TechWorks website. "If so, it's time to upgrade the memory with TechWorks' PowerRAM." What, you may ask, has happened in these few short weeks that requires you to add 32 megabytes to the 32 with which the iMac leaves the factory? Nothing, except the relentless swelling of the upgrade urge.
It's crazy, of course, and Norman's argument strikes plenty of chords. His proposed solution is that computers should vanish, dispersed into information appliances - basically smarter versions of existing gadgets such as cameras and fax machines. The key to the revolution, he says, is that they should be able to communicate with each other. Perhaps specialisation would indeed result in leaner, more focused programs. It would certainly result in a new culture of acquisition, based on gizmos rather than bits for the PC. Most of these gadgets would be just as spurious as the average software upgrade. And at least with a desktop computer, you have all your technical grief in one place, instead of strewn all over the house.
Even the most garish US cartoon edutainment CD-ROMs invoke the National Curriculum in their UK editions, but the 1999 Hutch-inson Educational Encyclopedia (Helicon, Windows 95/98, pounds 40) is being pitched as a sort of digital Curriculum content superstore, with a menu of thousands of items relevant to the nation's educational canon.
You can book a Clubbing Break, offered by Leeds Council's suggestively- initialled Leisure Services Department, through the municipal website. Features of the site include discounted tickets for venues such as Speed Queen, a "friendly mixed gay night", or the Seven-ties-themed Love Train, plus a room at the Hilton (pounds 32 per person per night) with a checkout time of 3pm, so that you can get a few hours' beauty sleep before leaving town.
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