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Digit-ali - The editorial column of Australian writer, Ali Kayn

Spring, 1997

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The editor (right) with Buffy, the Vampire Slayer (left) There are some advantages to being a techno-journalist. One is that often we don't have to read about the latest and greatest -- the companies invite us to a meeting and tell us personally about their newest and grooviest. Sometimes, it's over an excellent meal.

Hewlett Packard demonstrated their new palm-top to a group of us, and we promptly drop-tested the units (more than once). Personally, I wince at WinCE. What's the point? For us, it had no keyboard to speak of, didn't run the same software as the desktops or notebooks, etc. But it did start me thinking (see I remember the future).

Far more exciting are their new printers, which integrate several different functions (see Just the Hard Facts).

Why, you'd think that with all the new STUFF that people are daily notifying me of, that I'd be in seventh heaven. But I'm not.

I miss the days when I could type and use my own macros and create bloody big documents in record time. Today I spend considerably more time shoving a mouse around my desk than I do typing. Note this -- I am spending more time negotiating with the interface (Windows 95) than I am in productive work.

This is my metaphor for GUI interfaces: imagine you have to walk through a darkened room and exit from another door. You don't know where the door is, but there is a rope that you can follow. This rope takes you from one corner to another, it leads you all over the place making many stops, but eventually it gets you to the other door.

You don't know where the second door is in relation to the one you enter from, not the first time you go through. But after a couple of attempts you know what the other door is like and where it is in relation to your entry point BUT you still have to walk all the way through.

Shortcut keys in GUI products pshaw! Useless, misleading, and sometimes not working at all.

The reason I went from Apple to DOS was because of the variety. I could choose the best interface for each application: a GUI interface for final-makeup of desktop publishing, a textual interface for pumping out the thousands of words a week that feed me and the cats.

Now I'm frustrated, spending hours of wasted time just fighting with increasingly slow and cumbersome systems.

In the 1980s we knew that you had a trade off -- the more of a user-interface you placed in a system the less powerful it would be. That is, if you have to put a lot of extra code in to talk to the user, the user has less opportunity to speak directly and categorically to the system.

The problem is that our choices have been eroded. Where once we could choose any operating system and version of WordPerfect and use a common data format to exchange documents, even that has gone. Microsoft has always been a problem shifting between versions of its own products, on the same operating system, and between operating systems.

What to do?

Well, give the users back some flexibility in choosing how they work. When any product tries to be all things to all people, it suits just about no-one. If it tries to work to the lowest common denominator, it is useless in controlled environments like corporations where customisations and security are an issue.

And they fail to satisfy the people who made them famous. The original enthusiastic (though ever-demanding) users are left without support, trampled in the stampede for world domination, sorry, um, world market infiltration, um, well, you know what I mean.

And another thing, while I have your attention, lets get some bloody commitment to maintenance releases and damn good cleanup of bugs before the next version comes out. If there's another thing that frustrates me to extremely unpleasant language, its computer programs that convert my CORRECT information and instructions into rubbish. You know the stuff -- the layout looks like some dumbo with two hours training and no style has created your document, or your links don't work.

Sorry, you didn't see that coming?

My site has broken links and I hate that. What I hate is the fact that since I upgraded Windows 95 I lost the ability to point-and-click from Internet Assistant. So I have to GUESS the file names and locations, and ASSUME that I've typed them correctly. (You guessed that I write in the deep, dark hours of the morning didn't you?)

I hate that my carefully thought-out meta tags are truncated by Microsoft Word to <META name="keyw> ARGH!

And I hate that when I report these things its -- sorry? What? Gosh.

Who do I blame?

Everyone who doesn't complain. If it bugs you (no pun intended for once) COMPLAIN. If it's too complicated for the task COMPLAIN. If it's too slow COMPLAIN. If it is illogical, wasteful, irrational, unwieldy, inconsistent, flaky, unstable, … COMPLAIN.

Complain loud, complain long, complain lots. The squeaky wheel gets the oil.

When software and hardware were monitored by professionals who spent most of their business hours researching, exchanging information and evaluating the results, and when there were less of us, then we had better, more productive, more flexible, better-value products. Yes, we paid more, but we got more!

We had a voice, we were important to the suppliers. Today when a government department dumps their word processing software the suppliers say, "Oh, dear, another one. Pity" Who cares is a couple of thousand people stop using your product? There's millions more.

Of course, thousands become millions and once de facto standards become forgotten memories.

So what do you do?


When do you do it?

EVERY TIME the products you buy do not serve you well.

You see, the user population gets the products it deserves, because very few people or organisations are going to bother making products better than you demand.

But the people who do have higher standards, those who have responsibilities to the users they support, the ones whose dedication and communication help build great programs, they too are getting these inadequate products. Its exactly like politics, the people who care get the same poor service and products as those who don't. It's democracy.

The majority aren't always right, they're just the majority.

Now, back to testing my links. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy this season's issue of Festivale.
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Filed: 13-Sep-1997 : Last updated: 13-Sep-1997 : Last tested: 16-Jul-2014: Last compiled: 08-Aug-2014
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