Electronic Design

Can Computers Be Made As Easy To Use As Appliances?

When I turn on my laptop computer, I typically hear a series of beeps and I see command-line sequences checking my system and eventually, bring me to an opening screen. The total boot process takes about two minutes, which in my humble opinion is about 1 minute, 59 seconds too long. Of course, I'm not using the latest technology. But, I would guess that most of us are one or two iterations behind the leading edge.

If personal computers are to achieve consumer appliance status—on a par with television sets, telephones, etc.—a lot must change in the PC. The evolution of the color TV is probably a good comparison to the PC. We no longer have to endure the long warm-up times, waiting for the picture to come on. Thanks to automatic settings, the process of fiddling with color balance and other controls has been removed. New features such as picture-in-picture, multichannel sound, HDTV displays, and others are turning the TV into a multitechnology entertainment complex. All we do today is plug the set in, attach a cable or antenna, turn the set on, and tune to our favorite channel.

Although the PC hasn't been around as long, it seems to me that we should have learned many lessons in usability from the TV. Granted, the PC came from scientific and business roots, but that shouldn't mean it has to be difficult to setup and maintain. Until recently, though, that was the grim reality pushing many of the potential PC users further away, rather than bringing them closer to purchasing a system.

The last year or two has seen a pronounced change in the attitude of PC manufacturers. Now they see the "technically challenged" as the last battalion of customers for large quantities of PC hardware. At present, desktop PCs have smarter power management giving them an almost instant-on capability. Laptops have lower standby power levels, thus allowing users to keep them in standby between stints with the power adapter. Plus, many of the systems come with most of the hardware and software preconfigured, thereby eliminating the setup challenge.

Yet, the industry must do much more. There are still too many circumstances that force users to reboot their computers. Software and hardware incompatibilities cause many lost hours of productivity or relaxation time. What are the solutions? Some are obvious—better software testing and a more-intelligent OS that protects the system from ill-performing software or hardware.

Further solutions may require a more drastic reconstruction of the PC and removal of all legacy ISA buses, and parallel and serial ports. In their place, the PCI card slots and universal serial bus interfaces will provide all the I/O. Just such machines were demonstrated at last month's Window Hardware Engineering Conference in New Orleans, La. Where do we go from here? What additional changes should be made? Send me your suggestions.

TAGS: Components
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