Message: 49
Date: 7.1.97
From: <nicholas@media.mit.edu>
To: <lr@wired.com>

Digital Obesity

Recently, I've been forced to look for new hardware and software and have since been suffering the indignity of updating myself. I cannot believe that manufacturers have gone so wildly astray while I wasn't looking - complexity is out of control.

I have spent much of my time in front of a keyboard and display in the past 30 years. People have joked about my dependence on email since 1970, and older flight attendants remember seeing me using a laptop since 1979. In fact, I don't know anyone more wired than me in his or her daily life. This is my way of saying I'm no piker.

But computers can be like ski boots. Old-timers are prone to keep their well-worn and comfortable equipment. Upgrading to the newest boot styles each year would raise hell with one's feet. Likewise, I am old-fashioned in my digital ways. I don't even use an email program but ride bareback on Unix instead.

But inevitably, there comes a time when those favorite, laced leather boots need to be exchanged for a new pair. That time arrived in early 1997, and the new, modern digital headaches I discovered still haven't subsided. Mind you, I'm lucky. I have the full and generous support of some of MIT's finest technical staff at my disposal. I wonder who the rest of society turns to.

Overweight software
The problem displays itself as featuritis and bloated software systems. I am fond of quipping about how every time Andy makes a faster processor, Bill uses more of it. Turns out it's not so funny. Have you looked at the size and complexity of Microsoft Word recently?

Outrageous. And each successive version has gotten worse. It's to the point where most programs are almost unusable and run slower than what I used a decade ago. What is wrong with you Redmond folk? Maybe you'll learn something about ease of use from your recent purchase: WebTV.

My adult and professional life has been spent trying to make computers easier to use, starting as far back as 1965. In those early days, people thought only sissies needed graphics. In 1972, when we devoted 256K to storing images, most people wrote it off as just another indecency and MIT arrogance. Why would anybody in their right mind commit so much memory to the icing, not the cake?

Three decades later, we find a generation of kids who count memory not in Ks, but in Ms (and soon Gs). This is actually quite wonderful, but look at what we are using it for. The interface hasn't fundamentally changed since the introduction of the Macintosh more than a decade ago. It's just harder to use and obscenely obese. Someone needs a wake-up call.

As a longtime devotee of Apple computers with a dozen active Macs currently in my life, I find myself extremely frustrated with the latest models. The little computer that greets you with a smiling face on start-up has become so complex that a Mac is now no simpler to use than a Wintel machine. So, like many, I decided it was time to switch platforms. I made my first foray into Windows two months ago and was so appalled that I raced back to the Macintosh like someone returning to a smelly bus after trying the newer subway system. I am amazed that so many people use Windows 95 without complaint. I guess there is a grin-and-bear-it attitude because THERE IS NOTHING ELSE. Yes, I am yelling.

Not PC or NC, but SC
People constantly ask what I think of the network computer. One result of that questioning is the appearance of headlines like "Negroponte calls Ellison a nutcake." Of course, the reporter forgot to quote what followed: "in the best sense of the word." Anything that makes our digital lives simpler is welcome. Larry Ellison gets in his own way with vituperous rhetoric about how the NC will obsolesce the PC and how Microsoft's evil empire will thus be crushed. Bill, for his part, had dismissed the NC with equal bravado until recently, when he jumped on the bandwagon with the Windows Terminal.

The sad fact is, NC or PC, they are both wrong - dead wrong. But you and I are going to do the dying for a while. We suddenly have no choice.

The world does not want a PC or an NC, but an SC - a scalable computer. In short, this is a modular machine that can be as simple as pie (and not cost much more) - as well as being able to grow from low-cost box to high-end supercomputer. Personally, I am most interested in the low end of this scale.

Why? Because there is no room for Windows 95 in Africa. Many other parts of the world also need affordable computing. I always thought this was a different problem from the one plaguing me. But suddenly I realize that even with so much of MITís computing talent at my disposal and no care whatsoever for what things cost, I am no better off than peasants in Pakistan confronted with their very first computer. Today's machines are just too complex to be accessible.

But what is there to do about it - other than bitch? Is it time for a strike or a users- cartel? You bet it is. Whoever is guiding those young folks making the operating system and applications of tomorrow should put his or her foot down. It is time to lose weight. Stop making software that options you to death and start delivering simple, easy-to-use apps. The stuff you write is written by geeks, for geeks; why not try writing something for the rest of the world?

An interim solution or holding pattern might be to eschew those beastly apps and recommend beginners to the Internet - through an online system like AT&T WorldNet. But when I went to install it myself, the instructions' first words, printed right on the CD-ROM, were: "Turn off the virus-protection software using the extensions manager." What the hell does that mean to Mom and Dad? Then, perhaps out of spite, the installer crashed my system.

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