Summary: Spend enough time to learn a thing as complicated as a computer, and you might as well make it your job.
As of the time I write this I'm still in the process of moving from Virginia to North Carolina. I'm commuting six hours a day (3 in the morning, 3 in the evening) and I'm in the process of buying a house. It has been one of the most stressful periods of my life to date. During this time I reached an epiphany of sorts: I realized what it is that Microsoft really, truly has over the rest of us poor schlubs who use OS/2, Linux, AmigaOS, and every other less-noticeale-but-noticeably-more-robust-operating-system.
I'm a first-time home buyer, and I'm going out of my mind. I'm going out of my mind largely because there is just too much to learn and not enough time to learn it. I am haunted by the knowledge that at any moment the deal could fall through because I didn't know something I should have. I am constantly reminded that if I don't cross all my t's and dot my i's I will not have the house I'm currently going through a great deal of effort to buy -- and that I don't know what all the t's and the i's are.
Consequently, I rely on many experts who do this for a living to advise me and walk me through the process. While this is somewhat more dangerous (after all, any of these "experts" could, theoretically, be people who exist only to suck my finances dry, leave me destitute and without any credit rating to speak of) it's simply not practical to try to know everything there is to know before you buy a house -- that would take years of study and I don't have that kind of time.
I could devote that kind of time to learning the proper way to buy a house (and learn to do it in every state of the United States, where the laws are slightly different, and in every country, where laws can be significantly different) but after spending that amount of time I'd feel obligated to take it up as a career. I don't want to spend my life buying houses, I want to buy one house and then live in it.
If I took the amount of time it took to become familiar with every aspect of house buying, I suspect I could have made a much better deal on the house I bought. As it stands, the deal I made is "good enough" because a) I understand what's required of me (more or less), b) I can do the things that are expected of me under this deal, and c) I really need to get past this thing and move on with my life.
Which brings me to the topic of computers.
I like computers just fine, but I like using computers much more. I see a computer as a tool -- it's not the computer I'm most impressed with, but the things I can do with a computer that really astounds me. I compose music, I draw, I write, I design web sites, I produce documentation, I publish with a computer, and I do things that 20 years ago would have required more money than I will ever amass in my lifetime.
Computers enable me to do things I have always wanted to do. I'm interested in computers only so far as they continue to enable me to do these things. As soon as I learn enough to do what I want to do, I stop learning. It's that simple, for the most part.
I learned how to put computer parts together because I needed a more powerful computer than the one I had in order to run the software I wanted to run. My computer didn't have enough memory, I learned how to install RAM. My computer needed a bigger hard drive, I learned how to install a hard drive. My computer was too slow, I learned to install a motherboard and a faster processor. My excursions into the dirty underbelly of the computing beast were borne not out of curiosity, but out of necessity. I had a goal in mind, and I was going to achieve that goal...
...and then one day I woke up to discover that computers had become my hobby. I do like to tinker, I do like to play around with and tweak my hardware, I do like to, on occasion, learn the minutiae that makes up the computing environment. But by and large I consider myself an end user because computers are a means to end.
I have tried, with varying degrees of success, not to let the fascination of technology and learning to use technology interfere with my original goal: to get something done. It is possible to get so lost in learning something that you forget why you were learning it in the first place and in order to learn productively you need to watch out for that. Unfortunately, my philosophy is often stymied by technology itself. I have found that most computer companies tend to be more enthusiastic about their technologies than they are accurate. In the process of trying to get a computer to do what I want it to do, I find I spend more and more time trying to figure out why it just won't, and ultimately I find I've lost sight of my original goals.
It's a vicious cycle: the more time I spend trying to get my computer to do what I want it to do, the less time I have to actually do it. It's even worse when you're not using a "mainstream" platform because you have to spend more time looking for less available information.
Many of your "average" computer users feel the same way, which is why they often settle for environments they consider to be less than optimal. It's probably hard for those of us who work with computers every day to fully understand that there are people out there who could take or leave computers -- they simply don't care. These people have to use computers primarily to store and retrieve information. They can be doctors, lawyers, mechanics, store clerks, secretaries, politicians, teachers, preachers, policemen, artists, musicians, whatever. These are people who have an entire career to pursue that doesn't specifically deal with computers, and they're not going to sacrifice that career just to learn how to use a blinking, beeping box that never quite works the way they think it should.
This, incidentally, is one of the main reasons why Microsoft Windows has done so much better than OS/2. Not because Windows 95 has more applications, not because Microsoft is a large, overbearing monopoly -- though of course both of those play into the big picture. No, Microsoft understood -- and understood a long time before any other computer company -- that most computer users don't appreciate technology for technology's sake, they simply want to get something done. To that end, the Microsoft marketing machine focused on building a public image of using computers to get things done.
This focus -- a focus on results rather than technology -- was one of the biggest things that convinced potential computer users to give these beige beeping boxes a try. Microsoft adopted the "Where do you want to go today?" slogan to send out a message that computers were tools that produced results. If they'd been able, I'm sure they would have used the "Just Do It" slogan instead (but it was already taken).
OS/2 users, Linux users, and users of other more esoteric operating systems, being more sophisticated and educated about computers (largely out of necessity) tend to focus on the "behind the scenes" actions of a computer -- how well does it multitask, how does it handle threading, how does it manage your resources. These are important things to consider, of course, but such things seem more trivial to someone who simply wants to "get something done" and move on. While Linux, for example, may be extremely stable and capable, your average user will probably be less than thrilled at the prospect of using an operating system that really requires you to spend at least a few months learning it in order to use it properly.
OS/2 might be a little more intuitive than Linux, but many people, when faced at the prospect of having to use a document conversion filter of a "non-standard" word processing application in order to remain compatible with the industry standard (as inadequate as that standard may be), may opt instead to simply use the standard and cut out the extra steps.
The fact is, people who choose to use Windows 95 simply because it requires less initial effort have a point. The "promise" of Windows 95 is that you can click the Start button and start using it. The "promise" of Windows 95 is that it is painless -- that the beginner can sit down in front of it and use it and get up and walk away from it.
Whether or not Windows 95 or Windows 98 carries through on that promise is irrelevant. You and I both know that the WinX operating systems fall terribly short when it comes to delivering on their promises. You and I both know that the Windows operating system's are at this point patched together with duct tape, safety pins, and cheerful, winking paper clips. But people are being drawn into the world of computing by the promises that Microsoft has made -- that computers are tools that you can sit down in front of, use for an hour, and then walk away from to go do something else.
I bring this up because, due to Microsoft's recent legal troubles, other operating systems are getting more and more attention, but none of the other operating systems out there really seem to understand one of the things about Microsoft Windows that made it so popular. With the possible exception of the Macintosh, most operating systems focus on the features that make them powerful, rather than the features that make them accessible (and these days, the Macintosh is trying to position itself more as an artists and designers tool, rather than as a user-friendly machine).
If, due to some cosmic event, Microsoft were to be hit hard by its recent legal woes and other operating systems were thrust more fully into the limelight, I predict that many of the people beginning to explore computers would simply walk away from them altogether rather than try something more powerful and more complex. The only way around this, as far as I can tell, is for developers to stop thinking of beginners as computer illiterates and start thinking of them as people who would rather do their jobs and go home at the end of the day.
Should we need to become virtual computer professionals before we understand enough to just use them? Your thoughts are wanted in our interactive forum. Selected feedback will be posted below.
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