I’m not dead yet! (But my old computer is)

January 17, 2010

In case you’re wondering if the man and machine behind Explain Technology have been in permanent hibernation, rest assured: I’m not dead yet. But there is an interesting story about both human and computer illness contributing to the absence of posts.

Back in late summer, I decided to spend a bit more time finishing The Ultimate PC Primer. Ironically, just about that time, my PC began showing signs of decay: freezing, browser crashing on more and more sites, more system errors, you get the picture.  But from everything I read, I needed to hang on until Windows 7 shipped. No problem, I thought.

Well, the end of October rolled around, and instead of getting to know Windows 7,  I had the privilege of getting to know H1N1 personally.  As my symptoms lessened, my PC’s problems became worse. I needed a new PC… but at that point (mid November) I figured I should hold out for Black Friday sales. And that I did, getting a pretty sweet deal. And then… I waited for my new blazing fast computing workhorse to arrive.

And waited.

And waited.

After 3 shipping delays comprising over a month of elapsed time, I finally received the new machine this past Tuesday. Last night, I finally finished getting all my software installed and my data from the old machine copied. Amazingly, today, the old machine won’t even power on. Now that’s cutting it a little too close!

I won’t bore you with my personal opinions of Windows 7 or of the hardware (they’re a dime a dozen on the web. Uh, well, actually they’re free.) But here’s one thought to ponder out of my initial experience: When I opened the computer box, the only introduction to Windows 7  on paper was a note card sized bi-fold piece of paper. How’s that for a contrast between buying a computer 20 years ago and today? Remember when PCs came with inch-thick paper manuals? Granted, setting the machine up wasn’t that difficult (for me), but what if this was my first PC? “Oh, but Ben, all that help is electronic now! You don’t need paper instructions. The software will practically hold your hand!” Right. That’s why, within minutes of powering on and following the prompts, I received the first program failure error (on one of those “hold your hand” pieces software from the hardware vendor, not Windows 7 itself, mind you.) Golly! Is computing really assumed to be flawless? Further, even when it does work, can we assume everyone has the spirit of exploration to figure out a brand new system without much guidance? I not only think not, I find not. It’s becoming more apparent to me that the desire to explore and understand the technology one works with is not a universally-shared trait, but that it is one required for confidence and success in the constantly changing technology space.

So as Explain Technology returns to the web, look for more thoughts stemming from my experiences consulting — especially in corporate spaces — soon… particually on this concept of exploration-based learning of technology.

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It’s the users, stupid! Vista, Win7, Chrome and how OS vendors might get some new market share

July 8, 2009

I’m long overdue for a new computer. Looong, overdue. But I’m waiting. “Why?!?” people ask me. Well, truth be told, I’m trying to figure out what’s going to serve me best, though it’s not like there’s much choice of operating systems: Windows, Mac, Linux. Choose and be done, right? Now, I’ve used Mac and Linux before as supplimentary systems, but Windows has always been my primary. I’ve been on Windows for a long time. I’m used to it. It’s familiar. And I originally planned on going from XP to Vista, like many others. But after reading all the press after the painful Vista launch — users “upgrading” from Vista to XP and even Microsoft admitting after Visa that the next version of Windows would be “less annoying” than Vista — I decided to hold off. Then came the final nail in the “upgrade coffin”: a Microsoft employee actually told me Windows 7 was so much superior to Vista, he recommended hanging on with XP until Windows 7 is realeased. Ouch.

What went so wrong with Vista? It doesn’t look bad. It’s not like Microsoft put too little effort into it. Major initiative, lots of resources, lots of time spent, but lots of users still hate/hated it. Complaints abound. So what’s the deal? Where did Microsoft go wrong with what, technically, seems to be a really cutting edge operating system. Well, in my opinion… Read the rest of this entry »


Mac vs. Windows for newcomer usability

January 29, 2009

A colleague recently asked me if I recommended a Mac or a Windows-based PC for a coworker. He asked at an interesting time. With all the speculation of what the loss of Apple’s Steve Jobs might bring, and the advanced hype about Windows 7’s premiere, it got me thinking: “Which is easier to use these days?” Further, which is easier to use for a newcomer? And has that switched back and forth over the years?

While I’ve not laid my hands on Windows 7 yet, I can tell you from what I read, I don’t expect the world to get easier for newcomers. But I do hope things turn out much like they did after the introduction of Vista — more complex, but core concepts unchanged. Vista was an evolutionary layer onto the older Windows concepts, but at least the core concepts didn’t change. And while the Mac OS concepts haven’t changed since the introduction of OS X, my opinion of which is more usable has since deciding to write the book.

When I started writing The Ultimate PC Primer, I genuinely believed I could craft a book to cover the basic computing concepts of all versions of Windows from 95 on, Mac OS X, and much of the Linux-based window manger environments. After all, a PC is pretty much a PC at some level. So I tried hard to focus on the similarities between Apple and Microsoft’s products, but there came a point I realized I had to chose one over the other. But which to pick? The crucial question was: which would more newcomers be learning to compute on? The answer surprised me. Here’s why… Read the rest of this entry »