Taming your tech
The simple approach to taking the bite out of unfriendly devices
It's in newer gear like music players that Apple's design acumen triumphs, like its iPod players sweeping the market. The simple wheel used for navigating the iPod was a break from the competition, whose devices often befuddled users with many buttons. Interestingly, Apple is said to operate with no internal user-design team, says usability expert Norman. It can do so for two reasons. Good design has been ingrained in the company's culture since the early 1980s. Apple also remained small enough to operate with a chief executive, Steve Jobs, who can tightly steer the process. "It takes a designer with a vision and who is a dictator like Jobs," says Norman. "Luckily for Apple, he also has pretty good taste."
Healing PCs. Apple's success with the iPod echoes changes across the tech industry, as what are essentially small computers move into devices all around us, hidden behind a few buttons and knobs. It's starting to happen as embedded computers make it easier to zap food in the microwave or set the washing machine. In a bit of irony, it's even happening to PC s. IBM has implanted a second, healing computer of sorts in its highly rated ThinkPad line of laptop computers. When Windows fails, perhaps from a virus, a set of special chips and a secure corner of the hard drive can help restore the computer to an earlier, working state. Or the notebook boots a second, stripped-down version of Windows to rescue crucial files from the hard drive and connect to the Internet. And yes, IBM gets a premium for this hardware.
It's important nevertheless to remember how far tech has come, says Bentley College's Gribbons. He recalls the green, flashing cursors of early computers that only engineers could master. Even they were a huge improvement over writing a long paper on IBM Selectric typewriters. "It could've involved electric shock, and I still would've chosen the computer," Gribbons says.
Syracuse University's Fisher might disagree, after he had to nurse his ailing PC through final exams. But once the semester was over, he opened the case and ripped the PC to pieces, a la Norman's advice. "And then I scattered its parts in the four corners of a dark basement."