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Чт Окт 30 04:28:19 MSK 2003

Welcome to Part 3 of David Reid's editorial "Cynic's Soapbox". In it he brings us his views on the progress made by computers and operating systems in the last 20 years.

As always, a good read, so click and enjoy...

Cynic's Soapbox

Join me on a journey down memory lane. We'll go back in time, way back to when you first had a computer at home. In my case it was an IBM model, though I can't remember the exact model. Looking back it was slow and awkward to use. At the time it was a revelation. At about the same time video recorders were becoming common place in homes as prices started to fall.

During the 90's developments came thick and fast to both video recorders and computers. Companies realised that videos were too hard for many to use and so worked hard to make them easier to use. Computers got Windows and graphical interfaces and with Windows 95 we finally went 32-bit and found the joys of a desktop. Computers seemed to be getting easier to use. Prices fell and specifications rose.

The last few years have brought us personal video recorders, easy to use and with 20 hours or more of recording time they represent a big leap forward over the conventional video recorders. The interfaces on these devices are designed to be as simple as possible. The simplicity leverages modern processing to provide a range of powerful features. Gone are the days of complicated setup screens for recording! What about computers? Computers today are readily identifiable as descendants of computers from a decade ago. Most still come in beige cases, with floppy drives, keyboard and mouse. The operating systems still supply us with a desktop though it looks better than Windows 95 and offers some improved functionality. Processors are faster, hard drives bigger and we all have more ram than would have seemed possible in 1995. However, the computer today is really just a enhanced version of the one we used in 1995. It's not any easier or harder to use though it does tend to crash less often :) Why have computers not followed the pattern of every other piece of electronic equipment made for personal use and got easier to use?

It's true that computers are much more complicated than video recorders and have a great deal more flexibility in their use, so it could be argued that simplifying a computer to the same degree that a video recorder has been simplified just isn't possible. While persuasive I believe this argument hides a simple fact - there has been very little genuine innovation in the computer market over the last decade. Successive versions of Windows have simply added functionality or made the environment better looking. Given that Microsoft is in the business of making money, releasing an improved version of a successful product is as obvious a strategy as Hollywood making a sequel to every film that makes them money. Projects aiming to develop GUI interfaces have recognised this fact, leading to a multitude of interfaces that are essentially the same in operation. While this makes moving from one GUI to another easy, it means that what seems like a wide choice isn't really that wide. The simple truth is that copying an existing, tried and tested model is much easier than creating something new and innovative. Yet without innovation the computer industry isn't going anywhere.

If computers had followed the path of other electronic devices they would by now have gotten simpler to use to a point where ownership would be universal and their use would be second nature. Instead they continue to be objects of mystery that people use when needed. Looking around at the operating systems available today they all look the same and largely work the same. None offers me anything I don't have already so why would I change? This view partly reflects how I feel about Zeta. Zeta isn't going to bring anything new and innovative to computers near you, it's just going to do what BeOS R5 did only slightly better. One thing that Be delivered was innovation. The implementation may have initially been lacking but the innovations were there with every new release. Zeta, OpenBeOS and the other projects trying to fill the void they left are faced with an impossible task, especially as some of the team that developed BeOS are now working on the next release of one of the few innovative operating system out there - Palm OS. Like it or loath it, it's general design is certainly innovative and beautifully tailored to it's platform. In fact PDA's and the particular constraints they put on operating systems seem to generate more innovation than is seen in general computer circles. The OS developed for the ill fated Newton was a shining example - many of who's ideas are still considered innovative and ahead of their time.

Predicting the future path of the computer industry has never been easy but at present it seems bleak. Computer suppliers want us to buy more and more computers. Computer sales are now replacements more often than they are initial purchases. Despite 20 years of development there is still a large amount of knowledge required to operate a computer, knowledge that can be hard to acquire - just ask my 84 old year great aunt how easy she finds it to collect her email!   

wbr, Bleys≥                        
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