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Computers are primitive

Novemver 2004

I’ve been saying for ages to anyone who asks, and many who don’t, that computers are very primitive things.  In developmental terms they are almost brand new, and behave like it.  Compare them to cars; I can get into pretty well any car in the world and drive it to Edinburgh without a second thought – and you could do the same.  We’d get there at about the same time, the cars would probably not break down, and we wouldn’t need to ring anyone for help halfway.

But, if I sit down in front of your computer and try to send an email, I could struggle.  You might have a different operating system, or an email programme I don’t understand.  Even if I could get it going, no one would be even slightly shocked if it announced that I had done something illegal (thank heavens cars don’t do that), or froze completely, or if I had to ring a help line.

No, computers have only just reached the point cars got to in about the 1930’s – they are unreliable, relatively expensive (we’ve just sent my daughter to university with a laptop worth several times the value of my car) and you really need a full time expert on hand to make sure they work all the time.

Furthermore, the computer industry itself could learn a bit from car manufacturers about how to treat us.

For example, we would be appalled if Toyota knew their brakes had a design fault, but waited to be asked before they mentioned it, and then just sent us the new bits and left us to it.  But we happily accept this sort of treatment from Microsoft and the rest.  If you do discover that they have issued a repair to a product, you have to get it and install it yourself, even if you don’t have the slightest idea what you are doing (most of us don’t).

For example, Microsoft has recently issued a big rebuild of their latest operating system, Windows XP.  If you have bought a computer in the last six months or so, it will almost certainly have come with Windows XP on it, but the system is apparently so riddled with problems that they have already had to issue a huge repair kit (known as Service Pack 2).

You’d only know about it if you follow these things, and anyway, installing it is not for the faint hearted.  Even Microsoft say that you should back up everything on your computer before attempting it; hardly an expression of confidence.  What’s more, at 220 Megabytes it is likely to be the biggest thing you have ever downloaded; it’ll take hours.

Even when it is installed, a process which involves a long series of decisions relating to the gubbins deep inside your machine that you don’t understand at all, many people are finding that it doesn’t work properly and interferes with some other things on the computer.

All this is hopeless.  We just want our machines to work, dash it, and get on with their jobs without being coaxed and demanding constant attention from a specialist.  No, computers and their manufacturers have a long way to go before they are genuinely user friendly, and it will be ages before they are as reliable as cars.  Bring back the abacus, pen and paper.  At least they have been properly road tested.

By the way, the general advice in the industry is not to try and install the XP Service Pack 2 unless you have an expert to help.  If you wait a bit Microsoft will certainly issue a better version that works.  Check on