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.
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