Genuinely intuitive technology is years away

07 Sep 2010 View Comments
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Stuart Sumner

Tomorrow’s World, the sadly defunct BBC television programme, was last seen on our screens in 2003. In its time it brought us such technological wonders as the fold-up car and motorised roller skates. Strangely, neither has since revolutionised commuting.

Were the programme still on air, no doubt it would showcase a new Apple device almost every week. Apple products are easy on the eye and more importantly, simple to use. But they’re far from perfect.

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I’m on my third iPod, after my first two decided that merely looking pretty would be sufficient, and ceased to provide any other output. The first now displays a sad face when switched on, before abruptly turning itself off, and the second displays nothing at all.

I made an appointment for the iPod support desk at the company’s flagship Regent Street store, but when I arrived, I was invited to join an immense, desperate-looking queue just to tell the staff that I’d arrived. Then I would be transferred to another queue in order to speak to someone who would, I expect, merely have invited me to buy another iPod. I left immediately, hoping that my palpable indignation would sting. Given the enormous swell of customers who perpetually choke the shop, I expect Steve Jobs isn’t losing any sleep.

And that’s just the company that gets intuitive technology mostly right. At home I have a wireless network running a desktop PC wired to a Belkin router and an Acer laptop connected wirelessly.

Neither computer works satisfactorily. The PC seems to be almost perpetually downloading Windows updates. During the brief moments it takes a breather, the firewall either blocks everything I try to do, or slows it to a crawl. I’ve tried adding all relevant programs to the exception list, to no avail. The only way to permit a smooth operation is to turn off the firewall, to which Windows reacts with all the professional calm and grace of a cat hurled into a bath.

As for the laptop, besides running at a temperature just below that of the sun, rendering the ‘lap’ part merely figurative, it likes to slow to the speed of my 1982 Spectrum 48k, but with a prettier interface.

And my Spectrum was easier to use. I learned BASIC programming well enough to get it to do what I wanted without much fuss, but Windows defeats me, and I’m not alone.

I spoke to BBC CTO John Linwood recently, and he was very keen on what he termed frictionless technology: technology that works in harmony with users. It’s a nice aim, but we are years away from achieving it. At my last job, if I trod on a particular area of the floor next to my desk, I’d lose my LAN connection. Now that’s friction in technology in action.

Stuart Sumner is senior reporter at Computing

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