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Too many gizmos have too many bells and whistles

The Baltimore Sun

I have been hearing voices. Sometimes they call out to me in the middle of the night. Mostly they bellow in the morning. They are familiar voices; they come from my pocket-size portable radio. Yet they startle me.

The voices boom like intruders with perfect pitch, even though I have not turned the device on. Moreover, no matter how many buttons I push, I have great difficulty silencing the clamor. On a personal level, these radio eruptions are yet another instance of a guy struggling with a new gizmo. But on a broader level they are examples of the widespread problem of "features creep."

This is the tendency of engineers to put more and more options on electronic devices, making them difficult to operate. I read an essay about "features creep" by James Surowiecki in a recent issue of The New Yorker. It cited a study by Elke den Ouden of Philips Electronics that said that at least half of returned products have nothing wrong with them. Consumers simply couldn't figure out how to use them. I know that feeling.

My family gave me this radio at Christmas. It replaced a much simpler model, one that had a dial, and a button that shifted reception from AM to FM.

The new radio, a Grundig Mini300PE, was sleek and, I learned, very global. Instead of an AM band, the display on this radio referred to it as "MW" for medium wave transmission. This apparently is what world travelers call AM.

It also had two shortwave bands, in case I wanted to listen to the latest news from Radio Romania or Radio Singapore. My needs are much simpler. I want to hear broadcasts from Camden Yards and the Car Talk boys in Boston as I work in the garden.

It also has a built-in clock and a plethora of buttons, including ones reading "alarm" and "sleep." These two buttons sit next to the button that turns the radio on and off, sometimes.

One day while I was planting tomatoes and listening to a debate about the proper way to rotate your tires, I must have hit the alarm button. I guess it happened about 10 o'clock because at 10 that night, and 10 the next morning, the radio snapped to life and the voices started yacking.

No button that I hit, and I hit plenty, could stifle the voices. The first time it happened, I turned the volume down until the radio got over its alarm fit. The second time the radio went out of control, I yanked a panel off its back and pulled out the batteries. This move, the equivalent of taking the key out of the ignition of a runaway car, silenced the tumult.

In the meantime, I started searching for the radio's manual. It seemed odd that a device no bigger than a deck of cards would have to have a manual. But this one did. It ran 100 pages and was written in four languages.

It took me a while to find it and as I looked, pawing through the drawer holding many appliance manuals, I thought of Gordon Bell. He is a researcher at Microsoft, one of the pioneers of the Internet and a man at the other end of the features creep spectrum. At the age of 72, he is scanning every facet of his life into a computer, creating a file called MyLifeBits. Among the first items he scanned were his appliance manuals, which, he said, you can never find when you need them. When I read about this, in another New Yorker article, I thought scanning manuals was absurd. But as I turned the house upside down looking for the booklet that would let me regain control of my radio, I wasn't so sure.

Eventually I located the manual, read the appropriate sections and figured out what had gone wrong. In my panic of button punching, I also had hit the "sleep" button. That both told the radio to continue playing for 59 minutes and disabled the power button. Who knew?

Now that I have figured out how to control these functions, I do feel a little smarter.

I may not be master of the universe, but I can turn my little radio off and on. That, of course, only gets me back to the position I was in a few years ago, before "features creep" struck.

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