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Ctrl-Alt-Delete: Is this it?

CNET's Charles Cooper says this can't be as good as computing can get. He's tapped the wisdom of famed computer scientist J.C.R. Licklider to prove his point.

Not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Sun Microsystems brought a Russian engineer and his wife to the United States for a visit. During the trip, the wife took a brief detour to visit an American supermarket.

After stepping inside the bright, well-stocked store, she burst into tears.

"All those years in the Soviet Union, and she had no idea there was that much food out there," Sun CEO Scott McNealy recalled. "She realized in that one instant, how much she'd been missing in her life."

Considering my struggle in getting my home PC to heel--an ordeal that has sometimes brought me to the edge of tears--I can relate. Throughout this summer of my PC discontent, I've been thinking about how much the computing world was molded by chance.

For example, inventor Gary Kildall of Control Program/Microcomputers (CP/M) fame, blew his chance to supply IBM with an operating system for its first personal computer. What if he had won the contract? Could Bill Gates have gone down in technology history as just another awkward-looking software entrepreneur?

Could Bill Gates have gone down in technology history as just another awkward-looking software entrepreneur?
Yet by the time Gates started building his empire, the general shape of what would become desktop computing had already formed. Want perspective? Take a trip back to 1960 when J.C.R. Licklider published his seminal paper, "Man-Computer Symbiosis." This was a world where punch card computing was considered state of the art. But Licklider knew it was the start of something bigger.

A researcher at Bolt Beranek and Newman, Licklider imagined a system where computers would do the thinking while users, freed from a dependence on programs, would set the goals. An oversimplification, sure, but the general idea was to create a collegial partnership between man and machine. (Interestingly, Licklider also wrote about an enormously intelligent "thinking center"--a concept that sounds a lot like today's Internet.)

Licklider, whose writings are so prescient four decades later, set the tone for the future of computer science research. Unfortunately, he forgot to leave instructions on how to fulfill his visions.

Were he around today, the technology thinker would chuckle at our computing "nirvana." Sitting in front of a piece of cantankerous machinery is an awfully dumb way to spend most of the day. I won't even go into the agony of trying to learn a new software program--a rough equivalent of trying to master a foreign language.

Were he around today, Licklider would chuckle at our computing "nirvana."

Whom do we blame for our current computing state? The early industry was basically handed blueprints by Microsoft and IBM some 20 years ago. Then it was left up to those who followed to figure out how to make the best of what was a pretty ungainly attempt at human-computer symbiosis.

However, there have been some nice tweaks along the way. The Macintosh user interface and the personal digital assistant are some of my favorites, but we're still a world away from where we should--or could--be.

With everyone looking for the next killer app, here's a hint: Make it easy. While a voice-activated "Starship Enterprise" interface might be nice, it's still a pipe dream. This much I can guarantee: The first company that figures out how to free us from our collective computing straitjacket will strike financial gold.

This will require big thinking, the kind that breaks molds and challenges conventional wisdom. But after suffering through DOS prompts, GPFs and "blue screens of death," it's hard to believe that Ctrl-Alt-Delete is as good as it gets. We could all use a break--just like that Russian housewife.