Electronic Design

Let's Stay In Synch With The Real World

As a member of the high-tech community in Silicon Valley, I'm constantly pressured to get the latest version of a new software package, or to purchase the latest appliance because it has abilities that the previous model lacks. The temptation to upgrade is great, but I resist, perhaps because I'm a bit more conservative than most.

Many of the programs that I use are at least two to three years old, yet I still barely tap 10% to 15% of their built-in features. The same holds true for some of my audio/video systems, like my surroundsound receiver and my compact VHS handycam. That's probably the case for most of the general population.

Interestingly, the reason for not using the features isn't necessarily a lack of need. Very often, a considerable time investment is required to learn how to use the features' fine points. For the average consumer, many of the latest gadgets are simply too complex, and few users want to invest the time required to really learn how to apply the features.

The now ubiquitous VCR is the prime example that we still joke about. Setting the clock on most older-generation VCRs was too complex for many consumers. So, it was often never set, leaving the VCR to display its famously blinking default time of 12:00 for the life of the unit.

Why did this happen? The early systems frequently employed 4-bit em-bedded processors, which just didn't have the performance needed to hide the VCR's complexity from the user. Plus, VCR manufacturers took the easy way out by writing software that got the job done but was too awkward for the average consumer.

The VCR makers bridged these difficulties by adding intelligence to their VCRs with circuitry that could capture digital time stamps from broadcast stations. Furthermore, they based their VCR designs on more capable processors—8- or 16-bit microcontrollers rather than 4-bit devices. The higher-performance CPUs helped hide more of the control complexity, making it that much easier for users to control various features.

In other areas, such as personal digital assistants, early systems like the Newton from Apple Computers were relatively complex devices. Too many features or too much flexibility made the units difficult to use. It took the introduction of the Palm Pilot from Palm Computing for electronics manufacturers to realize that less is sometimes better. The Palm Pilot's streamlined user interface and limited program options make it easy for users to start implementing it immediately.

As new products are introduced, we must be careful to ensure that the widest variety of people can use them. Those of us in high-tech industry centers like Silicon Valley must remain vigilant to avoid addressing only the "techies." We need to stay in synch with the rest of the world.

TAGS: Components
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