THIS COLUMN WAS was supposed to have covered a clever new product, but the clever new product wasted most of my day in a futile attempt to get just one of its features to work. Substitute topic: If you wonder why productivity gains from computers have been so hard to measure, try counting up the hours of fussing, fuming and frittering their users have squandered through no fault of their own.
In the computer world, as in horseshoes, close is good enough. In the computer world, products are considered perfectly acceptable when they almost work the way they are supposed to. The computer world often seems to be run by arrogant idiot savants who understand everything about their products except how they behave when human beings try to use them.
Personal computers have become so heavily bedecked with poorly designed new functions and so encrusted with the detritus of their ancestors that it is a wonder they work at all. The slightest departure from the expected by a smart programmer or an ignorant user can render a machine or one of its crucial functions inoperable. Practices, policies and standards that would be unacceptable in any other arena have become the norm.
Windows 95, for example, has been updated twice since its initial release, but to this day the only version you can buy in a box is the defective original. New computers come with newer editions that fix some but hardly all of the problems. But the initial set of fixes is available only if you visit the Microsoft Web site and find, download and install a file you may never hear about. The newest Windows revision finally fixes an ancient problem that wastes a significant portion of hard disks' capacity, but it is available only if you buy a machine on which it is installed. Since few computer makers have included it yet and there is no way to upgrade, the waste will continue.
Now, imagine the outcry if an auto maker knowingly sold vehicles with defective door locks and offered new ones only if you demanded and installed them yourself. The public's tolerance for comparable policies in the computer world is one reason Microsoft is sitting on more than $7 billion in cash.
Computer hardware is physically more dependable, but it depends increasingly on shaky software. Is there a soul alive who fully understands the multiple modes of putting notebook computers to sleep and how they affect battery life, not to mention what the colorful LED indicators mean? Is there a notebook computer alive that will not suddenly produce stern low-battery warnings, whoops or outright shutdowns only seconds after having reassured the suckered user that plenty of power remains?
I recently wasted hours fixing a simple system function that had been disabled by an errant program. I was lucky. After a day or so trying to repair damage caused by a program for children, a colleague finally admitted defeat, reformatted his hard drive and started over. A long-standing Windows design flaw makes that sort of thing commonplace. And Microsoft merely sets the standard.
Apple's Quicktime for Windows, a piece of plumbing necessary for many multimedia programs, keeps arriving in new versions that prefer to delete the old ones and thereby often disable programs that ran just fine before.
To save a few pennies, printed manuals are getting slimmer and slimmer; a new low point is a single slender pamphlet that serves not merely for four different Compaq computers but for four separate series. Do you need to open the unit to install expansion cards? The instructions are found on screen, making it tricky to follow them if you obey the warning to turn the machine off before opening it.
The next step, particularly with communications software, is putting manuals on the Internet. If you cannot connect, too bad. Technical assistance is also moving to the Net, to the chagrin of users waiting endlessly to talk to a human being about problems unimagined on the Web site.
Despite much posturing, the situation is unlikely to improve. As they announce noble initiatives to make computers simpler, Microsoft and Intel continue to beat the drums for new hardware and software guaranteed to make them more complex and less reliable. But Sun Microsystems Inc. and Oracle Corp., leaders in the network computer movement, appear unlikely to produce a panacea. Their products have been aimed almost exclusively at corporations with well-paid cadres who understand commands such as "grep" and "awk," not regular folks.
Election night on the Web should permanently give the lie to pronouncements that networked computing is likely to bring some sort of salvation. Not only did most Web sites fail to deliver information in anything like a timely fashion, they also produced howlers like an msnbc.com page that listed a "Senate seat tally" with 444 Republican and 222 Democratic seats contested.
In my Web travels that night, even cnn.com, the clear election-returns winner, was beset with links that went nowhere and data presented in odd ways. The evening revealed that undependable software, hardware and communications can make computing over networks every bit as painful as the plain old stand-alone kind. The outlook is for more clever products that almost work.
Pub Date: 11/18/96