The Real World

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I go around looking at the technical websites, and they talk about events like the Intel Developer Forum, where it’s multicore this and x86-64 that and how soon the only use for a wire near a computer will be to pick your teeth.

Then I turn around and find myself futilely explaining to someone that there’s no real point in buying an x86-64 machine when your Internet connection is AOL dial-up.

The reasons for this is that she’s getting AOL at a discount $11 a month, shifting over to cable would cost another $50 a month, and if she really wants to download something, she can do it at work.

She’s willing to pay AOL $11 a month just to keep her email address alive, but until broadband costs little more than AOL, forget about it.

What does she do for a living? No, she doesn’t hit the burger button on some cash register. She actually is involved in beyond-the-bleeding edge computer work to make computers likable. Not likeable like your screwdriver, likeable like your drinking buddy.

Or I talk to one teenager I know, who says “I want everything to be effortless.” Well, maybe she’ll exert herself a bit for MP3s. I’ll tell her it’s illegal and she could be sued. She tells me she doesn’t care. I speak to her father, who shall we say is making rather more than the national average income. I lay out the dollar amounts and odds. He doesn’t care, either. Not “I don’t care because she won’t get caught,” but “I don’t care even if she does get caught; it’s worth the peace and quiet.”

No, this is not just a female thing. Someone quite male in his fifties wanted to buy a digital camera a while back to take on trips; he likes to go to national parks. I told him he really needed to bring an extra set of batteries and battery charger with him. Too much effort for him; he was looking for something easier than the Kodak disposable cameras he now uses.

Long-time readers may recall that I play a weekly trivia game with a group. These folks have done/do things like be doctors, host radio shows, write books that get nominated for national awards, run environmental policy for a major utility, and programmed for the Apollo mission. This is not exactly a coven of nincompoops. These are not dolts.

Yet if I asked them what Firefox was, most would say it was a Clint Eastwood movie. A few would know what it was, but I’m pretty sure out of ten or so people, only one person besides me actually uses it (and it’s not the Apollo guy).

Then again, at least three of them still use AOL dialup, and two are still using a pre-Windows 95 version of Word, even when they have modern versions installed on their machines. Actually, one of them is still mad she had to learn that because the Leading Edge word processor program didn’t work any more.

I could go on and on, but the point is, these are the people who buy the vast majority of computers these days. Not the people who go to the Intel Developer Forum. Not the people who avidly read news accounts about the Intel Developer Forum. Not even the people who even are vaguely aware of what the Intel Developer Forum is.

Recently, there’s been news articles indicating that the pace of Firefox adaptation is slowing down, and is only around 5.5%. That number will no doubt continue to move upward, but you can hardly switch to something when you think the thing to be switched to is a Clint Eastwood movie, and if you live in AOLand, you just might think a browser is someone who goes to a bookstore and tries to read for free.

Atypical? In my real-life experience dealing with real-life people, typical is more like it. In my life, at least, I only find geeks in cyberspace, not real space.

When I look at all the geeky talk about how great this thing or that thing will be, there just seems to be this total disconnect with the audience. Not literally the people in, say, the IDF auditorium, but the people who are supposed to end up buying 85-90% of whatever wonder is being hyped.

And if you think the average person buying a computer is even a faint copy of the kind of person who is in that IDF auditorium, you really need to get out more.

Yet the tech people build and publicize as if their real audience were all like those watching the presentation. Like Grandma is really foaming at the mouth to run Windows and Linux simultaneously so she can knock off some open source code while waiting for her latest video to render.

Yes, there are people who do that, but for every one of those, there’s ten, twenty, maybe fifty people out there who wouldn’t even understand the previous sentence, much less do such things. Don’t you think you ought to be trying to persuade those folks why the hell they need a new machine? What’s in it for them?

The tech industry and techies seem to have this unshakable article of faith which says, “If you build it, they will come.” I’m not so sure about that rule anymore.

The main reason for this is that if you asked that 85%-90% what they really wanted, the overwhelming response would include the words “cheap” and “easy,” and if you want them to adopt something new, whatever it is damn well better incorporate at least one of those two concepts.

Whatever benefits they might have for geeks, “cheap” and “easy” aren’t words you’d associate with technologies like x86-64 or dual cores or virtualization. If people in developed countries aren’t willing to pay significantly more for something like broadband which will help them a lot, why would you think they’ll pay significantly more (or forfeit the chance to pay significantly less) for technologies they may not even comprehend that won’t do them much good for years at best?

Give them that, and their response will be, “I’ll keep my old machine until it starts breaking, or can’t do something new I want to do.”

So the hardware people are now trying to reposition itself to such people as a home theatre/entertainment box. I think this is going to be a much tougher sale than people think.

For openers, it’s tough to see how flourishing any digital entertainment world is going to be any time soon if people have to pay for all those bits being tossed about, since people (and not just P2Pers) generally have a grave problem finding something you can’t see, touch or easily get arrested for taking as being worth something. On the other hand, any market built on the foundations of wholesale universal theft is building on sand (at least in the developed world).

Ban theft effectively, and computer sales collapse. Don’t ban it effectively, and the content industries (eventually) collapse, and in the meantime, the hardware people will have the same kind of secure feeling you get when you run a drug cartel.

It will not help that government will take years to come up with any real solution to the problem. It will help even less that the content providers will take even longer to make the adjustment necessary to sell in a digital world. At the rate things are going, it will probably take a decade for the issue of digital content to be resolved.

Second, moving the PC deeper into consumer electronics territory means that PCs won’t be competing against just other computers, but against items like DVD players, where ease-of-use and reliability are expected. You hit the button, and the machine does what the button says. Not sometimes. Not just after you’ve loaded the latest firmware. Not buried inside a manual printed in a post-literate world, or in some support group forum.

Make PCs a consumer electronics item, and people will expect to pay consumer electronics prices for them. If it’s no bigger than a DVD player, in many minds, it shouldn’t cost any more than a DVD player, or at least not ten times as much. PC as great coordinator? That’s what the remote is supposed to do, and remotes don’t cost $800. True, the remote doesn’t do what its owner wants, but the owner has figured out workarounds, and won’t pay $800 for something that has not made his life simpler in another role in the hope this will work better.

Perhaps I’m wrong, but in a couple years, which is about how long it will take to get these things working reasonably well out of the box for these kinds of people (or honestly, for them to even notice there is such a thing), many of these kinds of people might find themselves looking for a cheaper, easier-to-use computer/entertainment box (especially after charging the HDTV). Hello, Sony Playstation 3. They may not understand Cell vs. x86-64, but they will understand a couple hundred dollars less.

If nothing else, PS3 ought to make the computer companies realize that it won’t be drag-the-dolts-along-because-they-have-no-other-choice business-as-usual.

But it probably won’t. The big old dinosaurs didn’t quick-step evolution and turn into tiny little mammals better able to cope with the demands of new times.

They went extinct instead.



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