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Looking for the eureka button

Computer buyers are increasingly on their own when it comes to learning what their devices can do.

Wouldn't it be great if your laptop came with a light-up keyboard? It would make it much easier to type in a darkened room or airplane cabin.

If you own one of 8 million IBM laptops of relatively recent vintage, you have just such a light. You may just not know it: there is no obvious way to turn it on. The secret is to press two keys--function and page up--simultaneously.

Some people discover the light by accident; others learn about it from friends. But many remain, quite literally, in the dark.

"There are all these people walking around with this great feature they don't know about," said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, a research firm in San Jose, Calif.

IBM's keyboard light is one of the great unknowns of the electronic world, but there are many others. As printed manuals grow scarcer and as features multiply in computers, electronic gadgets and software, consumers are increasingly on their own in learning what their devices can do. Even basic functions can remain hidden from the user forever, or until some happy accident in which the right buttons are pressed.

Kim Mandala, a homemaker in Flanders, N.J., describes herself as electronic-phobic. "Everything I discover on these things is totally by accident," she said.

One such discovery was the repeat function on her PalmOne Zire organizer. Mandala had been entering dozens of birthday reminders from the previous year when she inadvertently touched a button labeled details.

"It said repeat, so I pressed that, and then it said day, week, month or year," she recalled. "Now every year it will have everyone's birthdays."

"The more I discover, the more I love this thing," she said.

No one knows
Mandala may have been thrilled, but for many users, the trend is annoying. "It drives me insane," Enderle said. "You get these products filled with compelling features that no one knows about."

For technology-support professionals, the task of teaching people about what their machines do can be overwhelming. "Much like we only use 10 percent of our brains, we only use 5 percent of our computers," said Steven Scardina, vice president for information technology at a real estate development firm in Newport Beach, Calif.

Scardina would know. He provides support to about 300 PC users, most of whom have learned only the most basic functions of the most basic software: word processors, Web browsers and spreadsheets. He has begun publishing tips in the company's internal newsletter, pointing out software features that are not well known.

Part of the problem is that as gadgets and software become bloated with features, the only way to use them is through combinations of keys or buttons that can be described only in a manual. The ThinkPad's lighted keyboard, for instance, came about in 1998 after IBM recognized that people often used their computers in the dark. But there was no place for an on-off switch.

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"Not everything can have a button," said David Hill, the director of design for the personal computing division at IBM "If we didn't limit them, we'd be looking at products with as many buttons as an accordion."

Microsoft's Windows operating system is rife with features most people don't know about. This becomes apparent in a brief tour of the toolbar menu. Start with Programs, then go to Accessories, then Accessibility. There, among other features, are a magnifier and an on-screen keyboard.

For years Microsoft has been aware of the gap between the abundance of features in Windows (and in other core programs like Word and Excel) and how often they are used. The company has devoted millions of dollars and teams of employees to what it calls discoverability.

Usability labs
Microsoft studies the reluctance of people to explore new features in its usability labs, which are equipped with computers, cameras and one-way mirrors that enable employees to watch people as they traverse Microsoft's vast software terrain.

"We're very sensitive to the notion that software today does more than it ever has, and we have put a big effort on making everything usable," said Greg Sullivan, the lead product manager of Windows at Microsoft. "We also make sure the capability that's there is relevant and easy to access and discover."

"If it's a feature you can't find," he added, "it might as well not be a feature."

Sullivan's words, intended perhaps to comfort the average Windows user, only frustrate people like Enderle, who has been following the computer industry for 20 years.

"Microsoft's biggest competition is always with its older products because people don't value the newer features," Enderle said. "And people don't value the newer features because they never learned how to use the old ones."

As features have proliferated, the accompanying printed manuals to explain them have gradually disappeared. In recent years, mostly to save money, electronics and software manufacturers have scaled back the printed documentation they provide. Companies now put their guides on disks or online.

"It's a snowballing issue because the PC manufacturers and Microsoft, in order to try to convince people to move up, keep putting more and more functionality into their packages," said Steve Kleynhans, an analyst with the Meta Group, a technology market research firm in Stamford, Conn. "And at the same time, they've taken away manuals and other things that help people."

Hidden features
This, Kleynhans and others say, has contributed to the need to discover features on one's own.

"Putting everything online doesn't necessarily make it easier," said Aaron Lewis, a neurologist in San Francisco who has only the barest acquaintance with all the functions of his Dell computer.

Some hidden features, though useful, are too obscure to merit space in a manual, printed or otherwise. Consider the summarizing service that is part of Apple Computer's OS X operating system. The program will take any document and reduce it to a pithy precis. Yet Apple does not advertise the feature and mentions it only briefly in its online manual.

The summarizing feature is only one of many that are left for the consumer to discover. Each new Macintosh comes with what Apple calls an "up and running" manual, a 30-page booklet that points out basics.

"There are so many hidden gems," said Ken Bereskin, the director of OS X product marketing at Apple. One such nugget resides on the calculator that comes with the Macintosh. Not only is the calculator buried inside the applications folder, but deep within the functions of the calculator is a currency converter that automatically updates conversion rates.

Enter the book writers, who make their living off the absence of help.

"It pays the mortgage," said Steve Bass, the author of "PC Annoyances: How to Fix the Most Annoying Things About Your Personal Computer."

Although computer guides like Bass', filled with cartoons and down-home prose, have been around for as long as PCs themselves, they are selling better than ever. Bass said his book had sold some 50,000 copies since its publication last October.

His tutorials range from explaining how to embed a photo in an e-mail message rather than send it as an attachment, to how to charge a cell phone using a computer.

He recounted a recent meeting at which someone needed to charge his phone. Bass produced a simple cable that plugged into his laptop's USB port and the phone.

"He not only said, 'Whoa!'" said Bass, "he said he wanted to buy my book."

Passing down knowledge
The "out-of-box experience" for people who use Windows XP, as Microsoft's Sullivan puts it, includes a short video that begins when the computer is first used. Like the Apple "up and running" manual, the video walks users through the computer's basic capabilities.

But the brief video touches on just a fraction of much of the software that accounts for the fact that the Windows folder can grow to exceed 2 gigabytes.

Mostly, said Lewis, the neurologist, he picks up tips about using his computer from colleagues. "You pass down knowledge," he said.

The education of the computer user is driven more than ever before by word of mouth. Jenna Lange, a communications consultant in San Francisco, is proof of this. Lange, who does not read manuals, said she had no idea she could use her Zire as an MP3 player until she saw someone else do it. Now she has 150 songs stored on it.

"I learn lots of these things watching other people," she said.

David Karp, the author of "Windows XP Annoyances," another popular guide, said the forums at his Web site, are filled with news of newly unearthed features. "It's amazing how many people there are who find pleasure in sharing the little discoveries they make," he said.

During a telephone interview, Karp could not resist sharing one of his favorite examples of a hidden function. He pointed out that people often hit the insert key by mistake, locking the overwrite function and losing chunks of text. This common problem appears to have escaped the notice of Microsoft's usability labs, Karp said.

"No manual will tell you how to do it, but there's a way to disable the insert key," he said. Clearly delighted at the prospect of imparting this hidden knowledge, he ticked off instructions for creating a simple program, or macro, that keeps the insert key from locking.

Hill of IBM pointed out that computers and hand-held devices are not alone when it comes to hidden features. "Even the popcorn button on my microwave has three different levels, and even that has some level of hidden functionality," he said. But this was not his discovery. His 15-year-old son found the popcorn settings.

"Things were much simpler when there were two or three buttons," Hill said. "We're just not there any more."

Entire contents, Copyright © 2004 The New York Times. All rights reserved.

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