Monday, October 08, 2012

The High-Tech World

100 years ago, you had to be an 'expert' to drive a car. Just following the proper steps to get it started was complicated. Breakdowns were common which meant you had have some skills as a mechanic. Tires were flimsy and the roads were bad, so you had better know how to slap on a new one.

There was a time when the horse and buggy was more reliable and efficient than a car was. There's a scene in The Magnificent Ambersons where an automobile breaks down. A man on horseback rides by laughing and yells, 'Get a horse!'.

After a few decades, cars became very easy to use. Anyone could do it. And breakdowns became less common a few decades after that. When I was a kid, you often saw cars on the side of the road with the hood up and people standing around wondering what to do. You rarely see that anymore.

And while cars are fairly reliable these days, they have become complicated again. Not as bad as 100 years ago, but just sit in a 1989 Honda and you'll see how easy it is to operate everything.

Sit in a 2012 Honda and you wonder, 'How do I turn on the interior light?'

So what happened? Modern, '21st Century' technology happened. And we are still in it's infancy.

And whether it's a car, TV, laptop, iPhone or clock radio, people have to accept the fact that it takes time, testing and evaluation for all of these products to be easy to use.

So the next time you think, 'Well, maybe it's just me, but I can't figure out how to bake a potato in my new microwave,' remember, it's not your fault.

Like I said, we're still in the infancy of the high-tech world.

And while glitzy ubiquitous TV commercials portray a world where beautiful people are having a blast using gadgets, that's not reality. Yes, there are 'gadget geeks'. But we've always had them. We used to call them 'enthusiasts' or 'hobbyists' and they would run out and buy the latest hi-fi system or camera.

But most people don't really care about their laptop any more than they care about refrigerators or doorknobs. Unless there's a malfunction, they go unnoticed. They expect them to just work.

The fact is, people only care about what their devices do and deliver, not the device itself. We will soon get over the novelty of modern technology. We'll see fewer ads portraying mobile phones and iPads as being 'fun'. Think of a commercial for a dishwasher. The people aren't having 'fun'. But having an efficient, easy-to-use dishwasher pleases them and makes and their lives easier.

Also, devices will reach a point where we can't improve the designs all that much. For example, a guitarist can easily play and recognize the features of a brand new guitar. There may be subtle improvements in string or tuning peg technology, but it's the same design they had 60 years ago.

(Note: Obviously, there will be new inventions we can't foresee, and we'll have our clumsy baby-steps with those, too...but I'm talking about things that we use now that are badly or over-designed.)

The upgrading of devices will eventually slow down, but the stuff devices deliver will continue to evolve. Think of the poor guy who laid out a ton of dough for a color TV, circa 1963. There were few actual color shows for him to watch. Most programs were still in black-and-white. But four years later, everything was in color. He didn't have to do anything to make 'Betwitched' switch from black-and-white to color. The providers did all of the work. And the TV he bought would last forever. Most baby-boomers watched the same living room set from kindergarten to high-school.

Just as people rarely bought new televisions back in the 60's, people will rarely buy new devices. The constant upgrading is starting to feel like extortion. And it's not just the expense. Buying a new laptop or iPhone is a time killer.

And yes, there will be legitimate upgrades, like when the rotary phone changed to the push-button style (but it took 20 years before the majority of consumers switched over to push-button).

Someday somebody will make a zillion dollars selling a mobile phone that's not only easy to use, but lasts for ten years. And we'll look back and laugh and say, 'Remember when you had to replace your phone every time the new and improved version came out!?'


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