Posted by Tom Grant on September 30, 2010
"Or you could just install Linux. ;-)"
Believe it or not, that was a piece of "advice" that I discovered while trying to fix a problem with Google Chrome. The question was about a browser, but the answer was about an operating system. It was clearly not helpful, at least in dealing with my immediate problem.
On the other hand, pseudo-advice like that is very useful if you want to understand the state of the technology industry in 2010. It's the subject of this autobiographical psychodrama that I might entitle, Personal Computers Are Not Appliances. If you decide to read on, let me warn you: it's a terrifying tale of reasonable people at the mercy of unreasonable levels of complexity and unreliability. During this exposition, you'll encounter interesting characters like the Apple iPad, Google's business plan (of sorts), Marc Benioff, and our evil cat Kelly.
When Chrome Lost Its Shine
Yesterday morning was crunch time at stately Grant Manor. The quarter was coming to a swift end, which meant all kinds of deadlines for research documents, expense reports, client projects, and a variety of other tasks. Regular activities, such as phone calls with technology companies about their latest product and service offerings, still happen during these hyper-busy periods, when time becomes so compressed that it fails to serve its basic purpose of, in the words of Richard Feynman, preventing everything from happening all at once.
It was a very bad time for one of the laptops in the house to have a problem. The other Dr. Grant fired up her browser and was immediately faced with the sort of cryptic error message ("The following pages have become unresponsive. You can wait for them to become responsive or you can kill them") that holds no meaning for anyone but the developer who wrote it. This message poses a question that the average person is in no position to answer (for example, how long should you wait before declaring the page irredeemably unresponsive?). Even if it were decipherable, the message was irrelevant, since you couldn't close the page. Google Chrome was as inert as the Rosetta Stone, and for the inexpert, just as indecipherable.
As busy as I was, I said I'd take a few minutes to attempt a fix. Closing Chrome through the Task Manager, then re-opening it, did nothing. Opening a locally stored HTML page, instead of a Web page, did nothing. Rebooting the laptop, then restarting Chrome, did nothing.
Fortunately, Firefox was already installed on the PC. I fired it up and told the other Dr. Grant that she should use it, for the time being, instead of Chrome. (She had abandoned Firefox because of its hippopotamus-fast performance, so she wasn't exactly thrilled with this Plan B.)
Before she could get started, however, I noticed that Firefox wasn't merely slow, but moving at a geologic pace. Something was definitely amiss, perhaps related to her Chrome problems, perhaps not. Worried that the handiwork of some malicious goon might have infected her laptop, I immediately took it off the network and fired up the anti-virus utility. A couple of hours later, I fired up another anti-virus tool, because these days, you can never run enough of them to clean up all the toxic effluvia that people send your way down the electronic aqueduct.
And, yes, there was an infection. After killing it, I tried Google Chrome again...But it was still DOA.
A Nightmarish World In Which Everyone Must Be An Expert
I'll skip over the middle part of the story, which included trips to the Google Chrome help forum, which appears to be the wrong place to look for Google employees, and archaeological expeditions to other forums where I might find answers. It was at one of these other sites that I found someone reporting the same problem, followed by the highly unhelpful answer I quoted at the beginning of this post. Always count on help forums to attract at least a few people with a technological ax to grind, combined with an uncontrollable desire to swing it at any unlucky sap who attracts their attention.
The only reason I was able to juggle this home IT challenge, along with my actual job, is because of my background with computers. I'm far from being the most technically proficient person I know, but I am more adept with hardware and software than the average person. And by "average person," I mean the millions of people who have the bizarre expectation that, after three decades of personal computing, they should be able to turn on their laptop and do their work, read the news, sweep out their email inbox, and do other prosaic tasks. Instead, their personal computer behaves less like an appliance, and more like a psychotic relative who might snap at any moment for unfathomably dark and deep reasons.
Of course, appliances break all the time. However, we're not required to be experts in how they work. I bet the "Just install Linux" guy doesn't fix his car whenever it breaks down. If the circuit breakers keep flipping in his house, chances are that he won't cut holes in the walls to check the wiring, so that the electrician can decide it's now worth his while to intervene. But that's what the experience of using a personal computer feels like, for perfectly reasonable people, long after these devices became more than just the sole domain of technicians and hobbyists.
Millions Watch In Awe As Man Reads Newspaper
That's one of the secrets of the iPad's allure. Do not dismiss it as just a big iPhone or iPod touch. It's just big enough that people can imagine themselves reading e-mail or hopping from one Web site to the next. Steve Jobs could have launched the iPad in five minutes, sitting in that chair, reading a Web page, flipping through some photos, doing one or two other mundane things, and then walking off. (Of course, he had to keep every Apple product group happy by showing off their contribution to the iPad. But really, after 45 minutes of keynote presentation, who needed to see the Calendar?) The iPad also presents the earth-shattering option of reading a book, which is clumsy on a PC, and next to impossible on a smartphone.
Of course, the iPad isn't 100% reliable, or even perfectly designed. Apps crash on occasion, and it's a royal pain to organize all of them. However, the vast majority of customers, unless Apple does something profoundly stupid, will never encounter anything worse. Apple designed the iPad to limit its complexity the user encounters far more than the average netbook, laptop, or desktop does.
This insulation from complexity is also what makes SaaS appealing. While I still think "No Software" isn't the right choice of words, people did understand what Marc Benioff meant with that slogan. As I discuss in an upcoming duo of publications, SaaS is a more profound change than people realize. Among other big changes with big consequences, successful SaaS vendors have learned, by necessity, how to insulate users from complexity, in the same fashion as the iPad. SaaS must be easy to understand, because a higher percentage of people will evaluate it on their own, without (horrors!) the intervention of salespeople. It must be easy to adopt, because of the widespread expectation that SaaS delivers value right away. And it must be easy to use, because customers will exercise their right to not use it, and therefore not pay you.
There's no place in the world of the iPad, or SaaS, for the "Just install Linux" guy. His natural habitat is the world in which people must care about whether they've updated their drivers and run their seven anti-virus programs and made sure that they're running the right service pack and rebooted and checked the compatibility matrix and reinstalled the browser and run HijackThis and checked all the processes in Task Manager and looked at the log files, and then, after all that, have someone tell you that the problem might be your choice of operating system, and who knows, there's a slender chance he may be right...?
The Off Switch Should Not Be A Revolutionary Advance
This is the world that Google has entered with Chrome, or anything else that it installs on the desktop. Unfortunately, they're a company dominated by young engineers who often assume that everyone else sees the world they same way they do (hence the Wave and Buzz goof-ups). Lucky them that the company started with search, which is simple and widely useful, instead of more arcane products like Web analytics and Wikis. If search has problems, the worst that might happen are some missing results that the famous Google algorithm should have provided. When your browser breaks, and the support forums appear to have a high ratio of damned souls to potential saviors, it's another matter entirely.
But we can be too hard on Google, which is, after all, not the only tech company where engineers design software for people completely unlike them, without an appreciation for how hard that is. The tech industry is still immature in that way, though recent developments, like SaaS, have forced many companies to grow beyond the self-absorption of a smart teenager. But the industry is still pretty darn immature if the biggest hoopla of the year centered on a man sitting in a chair, reading the morning news.
Back to my very long day, which ended in bed, reading the news (Shazam!) on my iPad. Our cat Kelly decided it was time to play, so she rammed her head repeatedly into the iPad until I was forced to pay attention to her. (Cunning and ruthless, she knows exactly how to get a desired reaction from us.) The other Dr. Grant observed, "Maybe it's time to put down the gadgets for the day."
That's exactly what most people expect, quite reasonably, from three amazing decades of personal computing: instead of wrestling with these devices into the wee hours, shutting them off whenever we want.