Wednesday, April 04, 2007


how the "user friendly" vision was lost

Ease-of-use and ease-of-starting are two different things.

Ease-of-use is about how efficient and comfortable you are once you have figured out what to do. Ease-of-starting is about whether you can do anything at all without reading and understanding instructions or being shown. For the first two decades of widespread availability of computers, ease-of-use was the gauge of "user friendliness." How well does it work once you know how to work it. Is the user interface reactive? Is it fast enough? Does the display give you a headache, or the noise make your ears ring? Then several Project Athena-inspired, relatively low cost computers hit the retail market, the most famous being Apple Macintosh. The Macintosh was a market failure in 1984. It was too expensive and didn't have any applications. Apple had aimed it at wealthy consumers and they weren't interested.

So Apple reconsidered its strategy and "repositioned" the product to appeal to businesses who wanted to reduce their investment in employee training. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the workforce was becoming disposable, and that investment was becoming a major problem. They would spend tons of money on low-performance computers if they could be used to do very simple tasks by completely untrained staff. At about that time, Microsoft Corporation (stock ticker symbol MSFT) spent a ton of money introducing a caricature of modern user-friendly software: MS-Windows and MS-Office. MSFT had a network-effects monopoly by then, and if they'd offered shit on a shingle it would still have been instantly "the standard."

"The Mac" and "Windows" redefined "user friendly." It wasn't about ease-of-use any more. It was about low training and dazzling appearance. It was a tragedy. The original vision of empowering computing driven by the users' (not the employers') needs, from Project Athena and Xerox PARC and Bell Labs, was bulldozed in the marketplace by Apples's and MSFT's marketing force. But it lived on in the Free Software movement, which wasn't constrained by shareholder demands. Our software is easy to use, once you make the effort to learn a little bit about it. Their software is harder to use but easier to get started with. I often hear it put, "it's easier to do easy things on the corporate stuff, it's easier to do hard things on freeware."

So think about that the next time you get frustrated with unfamiliar software. Why do you resent having to learn to use it? Computer literacy is an investment in yourself that makes you less disposable. Due to the Copyleft, the GNU system is part of your cultural heritage as a human being. Nobody can take it away from you. Learning about it will pay off as long as you use computers. That's why the monopoly wants you to make do without it. People who tell you "you don't need to know that" are not your friends.

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