Monday 21 December 2009

Climate Change - where is the truth?

There is a huge amount of noise going on surrounding climate change, global warming and the politics of COP15. I've been trying to make sense of it, from my scientific engineering background. I've done quite a lot of reading, but I can't give you the answer. Here's why:

EITHER the world is getting hotter, OR it isn't. I've tried to read the science myself, and the result seems to be "we don't know". Some studies suggest the world is getting hotter, other studies suggest it isn't. The amount of "noise" makes it hard to measure (for example we are trying to measure a 2 deg C global rise against seasonal variation of 25 degrees between winter and summer - it's like measuring the depth of water in a bathtub whilst your child is splashing the water about). Faced with the variance in results, the newspapers, politicians and activists read this whichever way they want. The general public remain confused.

IF the world is getting hotter, it is EITHER caused by mankind, OR it isn't. Again, my reading of the data is unclear. "We don't know". Soot from the 1980s seems to have mitigated the situation. What about pollutants from the industrial revolution? Nobody's mentioned the Ozone Hole recently... Are the changes in climate due to our actions in the last 5 years, the last 50 years, or the last 500 years? Do we know? The answers are confused because the studies show different results. Again, dry matchwood for fueling the fiery debate. The arrogant absolve responsibility of anything, blaming everyone else. The general public remain confused ... and feel guilty.

We don't know if the world is getting hotter, or who caused it. There are some pretty significant signs that the world IS getting hotter, and we can logically argue that the heat and rubbish we've generated over the last 250 years has been pretty irresponsible. However we may not be able to say conclusively why these things happen until a lot more data has been collected and analysed ... by which time it may well be too late. The general public will still be confused, will still feel guilty, and will probably be dying out.

Regardless of the answers to these questions, we DO have a responsibility to do something. Our wasteful society is running out of oil, possibly running out of drinking water, probably going to run out of land, will eventually run out of coal.... We cannot continue our society forever in this way. In fact we probably can't continue our society for 10 years in this way. As natural resources become scarce, people will adapt to new ways of doing things, but history also tells us that there will be conflicts: do we want a Second American Civil War over drinking water? Do we desire to resolve the land crisis that will result from global flooding through the loss of a billion lives? The alternative, unfortunately, is what Al Gore calls "an inconvenient truth" because it means inconveniently buying things that aren't made in China, inconveniently having to go without a second - or even a first - car, inconveniently not being able to hop over to Prague for a night at the opera.

Copenhagen has showed us that Politicians can't give us the answers: the Nanny State that we trusted in to provide for all our needs looks like the Emperor in his new clothes. Are there things that the general public can do? Things that will REALLY make a difference. Not just changing lightbulbs and stopping coal-trains, but radically changing our way of life? Somebody? Anybody?

Friday 11 December 2009

OpenOffice and Mac Book Pro

I am pleasantly surprised by OpenOffice (having tried it a few years ago when it wasn't so good). But the pinch-zoom thing on the MacBook Pro (zooming with two fingers on the trackpad) really annoys me. It's hypersensitive in OpenOffice Writer, zooms to miniscule or gigantic when I don't want to, and isn't easy to control. But Mac OS Leopard doesn't let you switch the feature off!

This guy wrote a patch that fixes the problem... and as a bonus it ONLY disables pinch-zoom for OpenOffice (the other apps still support pinch-zoom). Different versions are available to disable it in different apps. Installing it may require certain geek access to scary bits of Mac OS, but it's solved the zoom problem and made my day :-)

Thursday 10 December 2009

More Apple rumours

There have been rumours of Apple's Tablet PC for a long long time. The latest report (at respectable Ars Technica) suggests next Spring. They might wait till WWDC, though they might release it earlier to promote sales. I think the reason it's taken so long to come out has to do with the technology. It has to have multi-touch capability (Stantum gives us an idea of the largest multitouch panels). It has to be able to do everything that the Macbook Air can do. And it has to be good enough for Perfectionist Steve. The drip-feed of rumours about it's release guarantees Apple more fanatical following. I can't wait!

PS 14 Dec: The rumour mill is going into overdrive: TheRegister quote from a French site that shows a video of the Tablet in action.

PS 5 Jan: Google are also apparently working on a Tablet, whilst Pravda (Russia's most famous newspaper) reveals the Apple Tablet will probably retail for under $999 from Easter.

Friday 20 November 2009

A drop-down list of countries

"Please add a drop-down list with countries so that users can select their country from the list"

A seemingly simple request from a client whose website we were building. They are not a political organisation, but the mere inclusion of a country list turns out to be fraught with Politic and Intrigue.

The first problem is determining where to source your data. Depending on who you ask, there are between 192 and 239 countries in the world. The main official sources are at the same time incomplete and over-complete. Further research into the problem reveals a world tour of politics, frustration and behind each of those are personal tragedies … (but I'll spare you the latter for now).

At the time of writing, there are 192 members of the United Nations. This is not a complete list of countries, for it only includes official member states of the UN, and omits territories that actually exist, such as Taiwan (which the UN believes is a province of China), the territory commonly called Palestine (which has UN “observer status” but isn't a UN member state), and Kosovo (which is recognised by at least 60 UN member states but is not a UN member state).

The International Standards Organization under ISO 3166 lists 246 official country names. It includes both China and Taiwan (as a “province of China”) and “Palestinian Territory, Occupied”, but again omits Kosovo. However it correctly lists many separate countries that are not UN member states, including Gibraltar, the Isle of Man, Greenland, and the Færoe Islands.

On the other hand, the ISO-3166 list has separate entries for Cocos Island (population 600), Norfolk Island and Christmas Island (which are not separate countries but territories of Australia), French Guiana, Martinique, Réunion and Guadeloupe (which are actually part of France) and other areas which make no claim to be separate countries. Conversely, it does not list Spanish posessions such as Ceuta, which is an “Autonomous city of Spain”, but is disputed by Morocco.

The ISO-3166 code for The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is “UK”. The United Kingdom is a commonwealth realm (or soverign state) consisting of four countries : England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – but none of these are listed in the ISO-3166 country list even though they are countries.

Wikipedia is a very helpful source of information and is kept up to date: This page helpfully maintains a list of “Soverign states”, and goes into considerable detail about dependant territories, conflicts and disputes. Wikipedia explains the situation regarding Kosovo, Abkhazia, Taiwan, and many other countries, and gives information on the hierarchy of areas such as Great Britain (Great Britain is not a country but an island. Britain refers to the Kingdom of England and the Principality of Wales, but excludes the Kingdom of Scotland. The British situation is particularly well explained).

The Internet Assigned Numbers Authority maintains the list of top-level internet domain names (such as .uk, .com and .info). This list is interesting for a number of reasons. It contains the top level country-code .gb as well as .uk (although the former is not used). The country-codes .yu (Yugoslavia) and .su (Soviet Union) still both continue to exist in 2009. There is no entry for Kosovo, England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, but the non-countries of Cocos, Norfolk and Christmas Islands and French Guiana, Martinique, Réunion and Guadeloupe are all included (as are others). The European Union has its own “country code” entry .eu which is politically interesting (the EU is not a country, though some think it is heading that way)

So, is it possible to get a proper list of countries ? In some languages, the distinction between a state and a country is blurred. For example, the Federal Republic of Germany is a “Bund” (federation) divided into Länder – usually translated as “states” but a more correct translation would be “countries”. Bavaria, Saxony and Thuringia call themselves “Freistaat” (free state or republic), even though they are not autonomous.

Let us assume therefore that our list of countries will be incomplete or wrong. Why does this matter when the client is based in London and is only aiming at a UK (or more broadly, an English) audience?

London of all places has a very high number of political refugees, dissidents and people who for one reason or another have moved here from their homeland. It is highly likely that one of the countries on (or off) our list will relate to a London resident. Do we insult the people of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by omitting their lands, or insult the Georgians by including them? Does one include or exclude Kosovo or Taiwan? What about England or Guadeloupe? The mention of the territory called “Palestine” is especially political, even in apolitical circles.

So to return to the original issue: a box on a form for someone to enter their country. By providing a drop-down box, the website owner is making a political statement (perhaps unwittingly). On most websites that have a drop-down list, I cannot choose “England” any more than I can choose “Yorkshire”. To avoid this political nightmare, I would prefer a text box where users can write anything they like, and I run the risk of having visitors from Elbonia ( and Applesauce Lorraine.

Friday 30 October 2009

Which Browser is the most popular?

Web designers have interesting territory in which to work. On the one hand there is the constantly evolving landscape of HTML and CSS standards, where developers are keen to be using the latest and coolest technologies. This keeps developers interested in what they are doing. On the other hand there is a need to write websites that look "right" on the end-user's system: more of an artistic, design parameter than a technical one, and the thing that excites graphic designers and marketing people.

The World Wide Web was adopted by marketing departments in the middle of the 1990s as they realised that this was a cool alternative to printed advertising. Ever since then, Marketing has been responsible for keeping the money flowing in web development. The appearance of the site is a high priority, and the customer is always right - even when what [s]he wants is technically difficult.

The "Browser War" is about the incompatibility between the main browsers : mostly IE6, IE7 and FireFox at the moment: the same piece of HTML may display slightly differently on each. This is not acceptable to designers. The web is full of articles describing how to get around the quirks of the different browsers: how to write sites that use semi-transparent PNG files (and degrade nicely to IE6 which doesn't support them); how to cope with text resizing (IE6 only resizes text; IE7 resizes everything except the body background image, and both IE7 and FireFox let you resize either everything or just the text).

How do we know that IE6 is still important, and what about the other browsers? The web-advert host companies track browser usage from billions of visits, to get a reasonable picture of the browser and OS landscape. There's a helpful Wikipedia page that tracks the numbers and explains much about how to interpret the statistics. Interesting facts are that Firefox is more popular among technical people (hence the higher Firefox scores at W3Counter, w3schools and the like), and that Opera has a very large following in Russia (28% at, and as high as 36% according to StatCounter).

Digging into the IE share by version number we see that IE6 still has around 25% world usage. This is apparently because it is the default browser in Windows XP. With an audience of billions, the web design team can't ignore a platform used by so many. In my own work, I have a simple bit of server-side code that detects certain browsers and can deliver alternative content for IE6. For the rest, I stick to the standards, because it's a simple way of reaching the rest of the browsers without additional coding. Thus I generally don't have to worry about supporting Chrome, Opera, Konqueror, or Safari. By sticking to the standards and testing the page with Styles switched off, I'm also confident that my site is usable by those with vision impairment. Some estimates rate this category at around 10% of browser users, so it's clearly important.

Faced with the problem of coding for different browsers, it is hardly surprising that some web developers adopt Adobe Flash for entire websites. The graphics are highly controlable, and the end user experience is guaranteed to be the same across (almost) all browsers. But the end result takes longer to load, isn't accessible to audio browsers (screen readers) or those who don't (can't) install Flash, (which most important from a marketing perspective isn't supported on the iPhone).

The landscape of browser usage is changing in a dramatic way. More and more people use the Internet on their smartphones whilst out and about. Steve Jobs claimed in 2008 that the iPhone accounts for 71% of mobile browser usage in the USA (the iPhone uses the Safari browser). Opera also seems to be popular on Mobiles. There are over 4 billion mobile phones in use around the world. The mobile world presents additional design problems - mostly the small screen space. Web developers especially need to address mobile in order to reach their customers.

The most popular browsers today appear at first glance to be IE6, IE7 and Firefox. But taking into consideration the Russians, the blind, users of mobiles and everyone else, it becomes clear that the Browser War is far from over. In the non-desktop space, Microsoft is a long way behind, but there is no one dominant player. The need to adhere to standards and to test everywhere is greater than ever.

Friday 9 October 2009

Will Windows 7 win back users' hearts

It seems that Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, may be trying to blame testers for the Windows Vista catastrophe - at least that's the way I understand it. Either Microsoft don't actually listen to their geek testers when they say "This product is un-usably slow", or the testers themselves are so used to appaling performance that most of them didn't notice. Either way, Mrs Foley's article suggests that Microsoft may still have an uphill battle with Windows 7, and that the early positive signs don't necessarily mean W7 is brilliant.

Performance is one of the biggest frustrations of using a computer. I believe everyone just takes for granted that computers take forever to boot up. This week, reports no improvement in boot speed in Windows 7: the testers suggest 90 seconds between pressing the power button and the computer idly being ready to do work (you may have noticed that Windows does an awful lot of it's boot stuff AFTER the window environment is loaded - this is cheating). We've grown used to pressing the power button and going to make a coffee.

In the meantime, Linux geeks have managed to get the boot time down to 5 seconds (remember - Linux developers don't get paid to write Linux). That's not just 5 seconds till you can see the desktop, that's 5 seconds for the whole boot process. Admittedly they used special hardware (solid-state disks are a lot faster than hard-drives), but the same code running on a standard Dell machine still boots in less than 30 seconds. Ballmer, can you get Windows to do that too, please?

Over the last two years, Linux has made a huge leap from being geek-friendly to being usable by mere mortals. Ubuntu-Linux ("Linux for human beings") has had a lot to do with this. One of the many aspects of Ubuntu I really like is the installation process: boot off the live CD, try it out, and you can play sudoku or surf the internet at the same time as re-installing the operating system on your computer. Genius! Can Windows do that?

But installation and boot time do not a user experience make. The key point for most people is the day-to-day usability. Does the computer respond as I type or move the mouse, or is there a delay? (even a sub-second delay makes a difference). If something unexpected happens, users really just want to know how to carry on. To use a railway analogy, who cares if a points failure in Crewe has caused a delay to the 13:50 to Basingstoke? I just want to know how late I'm going to be. And why do I get a meaningless warning when copying things from a zipped folder? What are "unspecified security risks" when copying files from one machine to another? Unlike Microsoft, it seems that Apple have spent a lot of time thinking about this, and most of their error messages mean things to mere mortals. Windows' users have to be content with messages that at best are meaningless jargon, and at worst red herrings. Ballmer, if you can spare some non-geeks to work on those, that would really help as well.

Windows 7? Well it looks nice, the graphics are nice, maybe the box smells nice. And we wait patiently for the first users to try it in anger to see if it's really better than Vista. In my past experience, new versions of Windows are usually more power-hungry than before, and hence less responsive. I hope for Microsoft's sake that Windows 7 is an exception.

Friday 25 September 2009

All that Glitters is Chrome

I doff my hat to Google - at a time when I thought computer technology was stuck in the 1980s, they are really pushing the boundaries. This week, Google have released a plug-in for Internet Explorer that turns Microsoft's browser into Google Chrome! Google programmers figured it would be less work to implement Chrome (or more specifically the WebKit engine -- on which the Safari and Chrome browsers are based) into IE than to have to keep writing around the bugs in IE's implementation of HTML. Furthermore, the browser within a browser doesn't create a performance bottleneck: independent tests boast that Chrome Frame is ten times faster than IE ! Microsoft were not impressed.

So how does this look for Google's plans of world domination? In the short term it probably won't make much difference to corporate computers. It probably won't make much difference to millions of non-geeks. At least initially. But it makes a difference to Google, who are allegedly about to pull the plug on IE6 support in YouTube. Web developers of the world will bow down and worship the Chromeliness of Google when IE6 is terminated.

But Chrome Frame is not about terminating Internet Explorer 6, nor really about terminating Microsoft. It is about HTML5, which is poorly supported in IE8, but which Google sees as the Platform of the Future. This is where Google are really pushing the boundaries, using a well-developed standard to do things that nobody's ever done before. When Google Maps came out, it was miles better than the competition: it used Ajax for image loading, and you could move around the map easier. Every other map service followed. When they added route finding, and you could drag the small circle to change your journey, I was seriously impressed (there is a lot of Javascript in there).

Google's clever peeps have realised that HTML5 will let them (and you) do things that you never realised you needed to do ... but once you've seen them in action you won't be able to survive without them. HTML5 opens the door to some really impressive graphical applications (like these, and especially this!) Just as you can't survive without Google Search and Google Maps today, so you'll crave their next thing, which requires HTML5 in your browser and you'll do anything - even installing Chrome Frame in IE8 - to get it. The world will be a different place.

Tuesday 21 July 2009

a dream ...

I had a dream, and in that dream, I was given a message:

This is a message for the people of Today in this Land. The young people today are killing themselves because they don't know how to survive. They have turned away from the advice and customs of their forefathers which have been proven over many generations, and are killing themselves and dying in their ignorance.

The people of today are lost. They have traded the robust and tested ways of their forefathers with ways that lead to destruction. Around us we see young people destroying their lives with things that satisfy for an instant but leave them devastated for years. They don’t know the difference between love and lust. They don’t understand why they are emotionally broken. The “prophets” of today on our TV screens promote a morality that has no foundation: “it’s only a sin if you get caught”, “I know better than anyone else”, and “it’s mine because I’m bigger than you”.

O children of the 21st century ––– re-discover the ways of your great-grandmother. Do not be satisfied with the ways of those around you but stand firm for what you know deep in your heart to be right. You do not need to follow the crowd blindly like sheep, nor continue along the path to destruction. But instead, find the crossroads - seek it and you will find it. Change to the path that leads to life, which your forefathers understood, but this generation has rejected.

The God Who Created You has planned a joyful and exciting life for each person. The young people have believed lies in the media, lies about themselves and God which will cut short this joyful and exciting life. Listen again to the advice of your grandparents and those before them because they knew how to survive.

Friday 8 May 2009

What next from Apple

It's time for the 3rd generation of the iPhone. In a month's time, the Faithful will make pilgrimage to developers conference (WWDC) to hear from their gurus.

There are lots of rumours about Apple producing a "netbook" - one of those ultra-portable tiny laptoppy things that have suddenly become so trendy.  But it makes no sense that Apple should compete against stuff at the bottom end of the financial spectrum.

It helps to understand Apple's target market. People complain about Apple's expensive products, but there's a clever plan going on here. Apple have successfully cornered the rich "early adopter" market - the gizmo-gang who absolutely must have the latest stuff.  Remember how much the first iPhone cost? Price was no barrier to these loyal customers, who were happy to pay nearly US$1000 to be the first ones to have a fancy telephone! 

These rich early adopters include a lot of people at the top of businesses. It is these people that I think Apple will target with their new Thing next month.  An exec or sales manager who travels and does lots of presentations would pay good money for something like the iPhone that can also display PowerPoint on a projector. If it were just a bit bigger than the iPhone, they could do most of their emails on it (touch-screen typing works OK for short messages).  It would of course have a docking option for attaching keyboard, mouse and big screen.

I thought Apple would bring it out last year - but I guess the technology wasn't ready yet. I think it'll be a cross between a Tablet Computer, a Netbook and an iPhone, with some other really neat technology in it. The price is irrelevant, because the Faithful will queue up for three days so they can have one by Christmas, and business users will buy one anyway. 

The most difficult decision for Apple right now is not the technology but how Steve Jobs should transition out of the company.  The Guru of Apple is ill and isn't getting younger. For his own sake and the sake of his family, he should plan a grand and happy exit strategy whilst he is still on top, rather than trying to fight the relentless progress of time. Maybe he should spend more time with the fans too, going on walkabout and queueing with them on release day.  That'd be different.

Monday 27 April 2009

on the future of Transportation

In these days of recession and financial brouhaha, people are thinking hard about all sorts of things, including the environment. General Motors and Chrysler are on life support machines (in Triage terminology I think they would be considered "likely to die, regardless of what care they receive") and there is much talk of electric vehicles. This week for example there are reports of how to make electric cars noisy and an argument over "fuel pump" connectors.

The efficiency of a coal-power station is about 35%. A nuclear power station may be as much as 45% efficient (but it's probably a lot less, for the same reasons that it's very expensive). Furthermore, there is a transmission loss of around 10% over the national grid. It should be a crime to cook with electric rather than gas, considering these levels of waste!

Diesel vehicles are about 45% efficient, and petrol (gasoline) about 30% efficient. Electric cars may waste 10% between battery and motor, so the effective efficiency of an electric car is going to be worse than that of a petrol vehicle. Electric vehicles will demand even more power from the National Grid... but in separate rumours, we'll all have brown-outs (Gordon-Brownouts?) before the Olympics.

Taking a very long term view, and trying not to scare you, we need to ask really hard questions about what sort of transport we should use. Is the personal motor car sustainable? Are electric cars really clean, or do they simply push the pollution to the edges of the map? Some say that we'll have run out of oil by about 2020 AD, and coal may have run out by 2200 AD (depending on who you talk to and how fast we use it).The people running John Cage's concert may need to budget for alternative power...

Assuming that we will run out of oil very soon and coal eventually, here are my three suggested methods of transport that will survive over the next thousand years:
  • Bicycle - perfect for short journeys, no parking problems, easy to repair, good for personal fitness, and currently fashionable.
  • Horse - currently more of a recreational activity, I think we'll see horses coming back over the next 20 years, especially for personal journeys. The skills for looking after them are readily available. Furthermore, the pollution is manageable, and can be used for other things (like growing horse-fuel).
  • Railways - except in France, they have the disadvantage of being neither fashionable or sexy - but that's probably because they are safe and dependable. Electric trains are the only transport vehicles I can think of that don't carry their own fuel (but that makes them nuclear-powered). Today, they are fast, safe and extremely comfortable. We may have to go back to steam engines, but railways are here to stay.
There are balanced arguments for and against all of these points. For example, would you rather have horse sh*t on your shoes or microparticulate dust in your lungs ? Would you rather sit in comfort for seven hours on a train from London to Frankfurt (changing in Brussels), or would you rather spend the same amount of time standing in queues and sitting in a sardine-tin attached to a rocket? In broader terms, we may or may not "run out" of oil (actually it will just get more and more expensive until it isn't commercially viable for the end-user or the producer).

The main victim of the forthcoming fuel crisis will be commuting: people will still want to live their lives in a modern way, but faced with fewer transport options, it will be the daily journeys - the ones that really clock up the miles over a year - that are first to go.

I hope this doesn't scare you. Use these opinions to improve the quality of your life in the short term by looking at the long term. Sometimes it's good to get off the treadmill. Is it really attached to a generator?

Monday 23 February 2009

Accurate and useless documentation

I have a new pet peeve: accurate and useless documentation. 

You've seen it: the help tells you what each menu point does, but there's no tutorial. What you want is a quick and dirty "Follow these steps to make it work". You find a tutorial on the web somewhere else. To get the thing to work you need to click File -> Build Widget, then go to the second tab, and add a path.You click the "Go" button, and it tells you it hates your kids cos you did something wrong. But it doesn't tell you WHAT you did wrong, even though it obviously exploded because the warnings were in red and yellow. It turned out you needed to use forward slashes (even though it's a windows program...) and press the third button on the second tab (which looks like it's greyed out) to add a path rather than just typing it into the box above.

If you guess which program I'm talking about, I'll invite you round for a pint, and we can drown our sorrows on the lack of usability.  If you wrote that software, you should be ashamed of yourself.  Never publish software on the Internet assuming it'll only be used by geeks!

Sorry, rant over. I'm so glad I got that off my chest. Have a nice day.

Saturday 24 January 2009

Lego Big Truck

Lego produce some fabulous vehicles in their "City" range. I've spent the last 6 months building one that has working steering - part of the fun of having an articulated lorry is learning how to reverse it properly. So here's the latest version. As you can see, the driver is indeed reversing a flatbed trailer across my floor.  
This is another view of the same thing, showing the front detail. You can't see the steering so well in this one, and the driver has folded the wing-mirror against the side of the vehicle for some reason. Maybe he didn't like having his picture taken.

Thursday 22 January 2009

Daft Dialog Box

As if to highlight how difficult computers are to use, my computer recently presented me with this message. 

I opened a zipfile that I'd downloaded, and dragged the files within the zipfile to my desktop. Then this message showed up.

What on earth does it mean? I want to answer "Copy", not Yes or No.  

I have no idea what zone I'm in.  Timezone? Congestion-charging zone? Twilight Zone? Wikipedia has 40 different pages for the word "Zone", none of which are relevant either. 

I don't use Internet Explorer, so maybe the message has nothing to do with me trying to copy files out of a zipfile. What else was I doing, or was my computer doing (actually, nothing).

And what on earth has the lock icon got to do with me copying files, me (not) using Internet Explorer,  or me not knowing how to answer "Move or Copy" by saying no?

It's this sort of "re-usable standard dialog box" that makes people hate computers. The text makes no sense, the options make no sense, and it's got nothing to do with what I was doing. No wonder so many people have learned just to click "yes" to every dialog box that appears on their screen - even the one that says "You are about to install a dangerous piece of malware that will murder your dog and cause your house to subside". 

Maybe it's not a dialog box, it's a monolog box... or a disinformation box.  Whatever it is, it's bad design. If computer-savvy people like me struggle with things like this, we shouldn't be surprised when our non-geek friends tell us that computers are difficult. 

Friday 9 January 2009

There are two kinds of people...

In my experience, it seems that people approach computers in one of two ways. This is a generalisation of course, it's probably more like a sliding scale.  The two extremes of that scale are as follows:
  • there are those whose approach to computers matches the Microsoft Paradigm. They understand intuitively where things are on a computer, how to find things, how multiple-windowing works, how menus are organised, and have no problem that there are actually eight different ways of achieving the same goal. 
  • And there are those who don't "get it". They need to learn how to open Excel. They follow set ways of getting at the things they need. They write down the instructions for copying pictures off the camera ... they write down the instructions for playing a DVD through the Set-top box on the telly. If anything goes wrong they request help.
Most of the former (who are probably the main audience of blogs like this) will laugh at the latter. After all, Microsoft did thousands of hours of user testing to make sure their interface was as intuitive as possible. But I wonder if their user testing was restricted to the population of Redmond, who by-and-large fall into the first category.  Most of the former will also believe (mistakenly) that the latter just need to spend more time with their computer to understand it better. After all, this is how software is designed, written and shipped. 

Sorry, Group 1, you're wrong. The second category is actually the majority. People don't like computers. People find computers ARE hard to use. Even among software developers, I've come across people in Group 2. They might be fantastic at maths and at C++, and understand pointers at a level you only dream of. But they can't use a mouse, and they have a little Post-It note attached to the monitor that tells them how to start VC++.  Or they're a guru at their particular language, but struggle with the concept of migrating to a new language because it's not what they've spent the last 20 years learning.

It's time for the computer industry to radically rethink how software is written.  It's time for the Open Source Community to rewrite the whole concept of the Graphical User Interface: first of all to meet Engelbart's goals (see theRegister) and second to make computers actually easy to use. The vast majority of the population would thank you if we made computers easy to use - by which I mean there's one simple way of opening your word-processor, by which I mean that pictures automatically copy to your photo album when you plug the camera in, by which I mean that you can recall an email message up to five minutes after you've sent it (because the system hasn't actually sent it !)

There's a long way to go. But we're getting there. Simple things like entering a date. On every travel site I've ever been on (for a train, a plane or a hotel) you have to enter the date in the format that the system expects. Sorry, but that's just plain laziness. Have a play with RememberTheMilk: you can type in a date in almost any form : "Next Tuesday", "20-jan.2009", "October" (even some mis-spellings like "friiday" will work). It's not perfect: it doesn't recognise "middle of March" or "my birthday", but that'll come. And if you get it wrong, you don't get an error message ! I am actually amazed at the friendliness of this bit of code - which speaks volumes about the unfriendliness of the rest of them.

The great thing about people in the second group is that they tend to be good at interacting with other people. Therefore this group can teach those of us in the first group how to do computer interation. I fear that over the last ten years we've had the wrong crowd leading the development of the computer interface. It's time to change.