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Tech Industry

Perspective: The myth of plug and play

Industry veteran John Dickinson asks why technology designers seem congenitally unable to give consumers a break and turn out devices that are easier to use.

    "You just have to make it so it just works when you plug it in," he said ever so blithely. The "he" in this case is a senior executive who just launched a very nice digital photography toolkit for hobbyist photographers. The "it" is the interface between digital cameras and television sets, which are emerging as the medium of choice for sharing photos between immediate family members. E-mail, of course, is the necessary application for sharing them with distant family and friends.

    Well, good luck, my friend.

    In this case, what passed for plugs were a couple of color-coded RCA-type jacks at the TV end and some sort of proprietary jack at the camera end of a cable; what passed for an interface involved some sort of quasi-mouse device on the camera. If you're all thumbs and need to use reading glasses just to make a sandwich, this isn't the sort of thing you'd call easy. And in any case, this stuff doesn't "just work" when you plug it in.

    For that matter, what does just plug in and work these days? For once I'd have to give the PC industry points over the consumer-electronics industry. Computer buyers at least have color-coded cables to help them figure things out when they open up their new computer and start hooking things up.

    Meanwhile, my neighbor--who's no slouch technically--had so much trouble with his new DVD player that he hired a consultant to hook the thing up. The not-so-funny thing is that he had no trouble finding and hiring this fellow--apparently the yellow pages and classifieds are chock full of such people. He refuses to consider a digital camera.

    I'm sure that learning new technology wasn't that much easier when my father's folks brought home their first console radio or Edison Victrola. But it can't have been all that hard to learn what to do with two knobs or a crank, or how to plug the thing into a wall outlet.

    If you're all thumbs and need to use reading glasses just to make a sandwich, this isn't the sort of thing you'd call easy.
    Bass, treble and balance controls came along with the input selection that the high-fidelity and stereo eras brought to home entertainment, making some folks give it up. I'm sure the advent of obtuse digital controls caused a lot more hands to be thrown into the air in despair.

    I always hate to admit that digital controls and displays add a level of complexity and confusion to electronics products that seems pretty unnecessary. Their original purpose is to simplify things; but product designers, product managers and product engineers push too much functionality into the controls and demand that the displays exhibit more information than they can reasonably show.

    I'm sure that learning new technology wasn't that much easier when my father's folks brought home their first console radio or Edison Victrola.
    The result is that I'm okay with digital readouts for station selectors, but what the heck is wrong with "clockwise makes it louder and counterclockwise makes it quieter?"

    Technology should be more accessible, and it can be. Friends and family often accuse me of thinking and saying that complicated things are really simple. But even I have to admit to sweating through the DVD manual one word at a time when I first hooked the thing up. Adding insult to injury, the remote control is so complicated and the controls so vaguely captioned that I prefer using the VHS player or just watching whatever's offered on pay-per-view.

    More often, I wind up with my fingers on a keyboard exploring what the Internet has to offer, which I find far more simple and far more entertaining. Maybe that's because Windows menus are really simpler than the ones offered up by cable TV.