The computer industry has its priorities backward. Every few months Intel comes up with a new chip that makes computers faster, more powerful and more versatile. Microsoft follows swiftly with new operating-system and application programs that suck up the power of those new chips. The result is new generations of machines that run about as slow as the old ones. Apple, Motorola and other Macintosh-related companies do the same thing.
The companies would argue that the extra power has made the computers not only more powerful but also easier to use, and there's some truth in that.
But the real problem with PCs today is their sheer unreliability. Things go wrong at an alarming rate, and when they do there's often nowhere for a user to turn.
The refrigerator in my kitchen costs less than $1,000 and has been running 24 hours a day for years. Not only has it never failed, but I haven't yet had to call for technical support, read a manual or page through Refrigerator magazine in search of user tips. Why can't PCs be that reliable?
The auto industry gets its share of complaints, but I can count on one hand the number of times that any of my cars have failed to start or, worse, broken down in the middle of the road. My 7-year-old Volvo might not have all the features of the latest model, but it can drive down all the same roads even though I've never upgraded its "operating system."
Every month I hear from hundreds of frustrated PC users who are having problems that can't be resolved by their software companies or hardware vendors. Most companies offer technical support via telephone, but customers often can't get through or must navigate a labyrinth of voicemail commands in a desperate attempt to find a recorded message that happens to match their problem. Good luck.
Of course, you can always get help from a company's Web site or online forum, which is of little consolation if your PC, modem or communications software isn't working. Some companies have the audacity to charge for technical support to answer a problem you're having with their product. What other industry would try to pull such a stunt?
The sad fact is that things are getting worse, not better. I can't remember ever having trouble starting my Apple II or original IBM PC in the early '80s, before hard disks and sophisticated operating systems came in. The original Macintosh isn't as fast as today's Macs, but it was much more reliable. I'm not pining for the good old days--computers were less versatile and harder to use back then. But I am challenging the PC industry to come up with machines that are as reliable as our TV sets, telephones, refrigerators and other home appliances.
Don't think you have to be a computer novice to be baffled by these problems. I know my way around PCs; I've even built a few. But I too get stuck now and then. I spend countless hours trying to debug hardware and software. And I lose productivity and sleep when things suddenly go wrong. Just ask my wife how many times I've been late to dinner or to bed because of some type of system crash.
I've had several crashes that made it impossible to start Windows 95. That isn't an insurmountable obstacle if you can reinstall the operating system. But to do that you must have access to your CD-ROM drive, which may not work if Windows doesn't work. Even reinstalling Windows sometimes doesn't do the trick. You have to first erase the entire Windows directory, but that wipes out all your fonts and disables most of your software and Internet configurations. It takes hours to get the machine back in shape, assuming you can find all your original CD-ROMs and floppy disks.
Today, only 35% of American homes have PCs. Why? Although price is a factor, I suspect that ease of use and reliability are also big issues. Sun, Oracle and some other companies think the answer is the network computer, which is basically a dumb terminal that uses the Internet to run programs and stores your data on an outside, network-accessible computer. Although that has some appeal, I don't think most people want to pay or depend on network providers for their financial records, personal documents and other data. Recent problems with America Online and other Internet providers make me question whether centralized networks are the answer.
A better answer is simpler devices designed for a narrower range of tasks. Some of us who depend on our PCs for writing, e-mail and financial services might be willing to give up the ability to play Doom, listen to audio CDs and participate in a videoconference with Grandma in exchange for a machine that's easier to use, cheaper and more reliable. We'll still want a multimedia PC at home for entertainment, but there is no reason why every machine must be all things to all people. I don't listen to music on my microwave oven and wouldn't dream of trying to insert a CD into the transistor radio I take to the beach. What I do expect of these devices is that they work every time I use them. Shouldn't we expect the same from the machines we need to remain productive?
Lawrence J. Magid can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. His World Wide Web page is at http://www.larrysworld.com