The Sad Reality of Personal Computing

by Ming Chow

General computer users (say 90% of all users) are not very flexible with their computing habits. General computer users often meet changes, updates, and new developments with skepticism and pessimism. That is the reality of it.

Last week, I did a rag-tag of activities. I gave a monthly technical seminar about free software and the open source movement to a group of general computer users (i.e. use word processing, spreadsheet, some database, and Internet every day). I also fixed my neighbor's computer (Windows XP) by reformatting his hard drive and restoring his computer to the original factory settings.

The audience at my monthly technical seminar embraced the freedom to use and distribute software "openly," and the fact that there are alternatives to popular software packages. The audience understood the benefits and drawbacks of proprietary software, and open source software. However at the end of my lecture, one woman said: Well that is great, but most of the computer users out there will probably not know how to find and use alternatives that are available. We are all so accustomed to using software such Microsoft Word and Excel every day, and I would say that most of us are afraid to use alternatives (e.g. AbiWord).

A day after my talk, I restored my neighbor's computer to the original factory settings because it was infested with viruses, nasty spy-ware, and unnecessary programs. After the process, I installed Mozilla Firefox, ZoneAlarm firewall, AdAware, and a copy of Norton Anti-Virus that came with his computer. I urged my neighbor to use Mozilla Firefox because Microsoft Internet Explorer is riddled with security holes and prone to breaches. Two days later, I received a call from my neighbor saying that he wasn't accustomed to his new computer settings and would like to return to using Microsoft Internet Explorer because it had the nice toolbar that had a nice button to send e-mail. I visited my neighbor several hours later to make Microsoft Internet Explorer "available" on his computer again. I also saw that several spy-ware applications were already installed on his computer.

Such stories are far too common these days, but hardly ever documented. I am sure that most of us, at one point or another, have dealt with a friend or colleague who needed desperate personal computing help.

In general, computer users have a very limited expertise on what a computer really is. I don't blame them. People need to get their work done. They want things to be simple: word processing, work with spreadsheets, maybe some database, surf the Web, write and send e-mail, and play games. Details such as TCP/IP, the registry, APIs, libraries, etc., are unnecessary to an average human being. Unfortunately, a personal computer is not simple. A personal computer is not a television, a VCR, a telephone, or a CD player. But the general feeling is that a personal computer is to be used like a popular household electronic appliance. It is true that a personal computer is a very powerful machine, and arguably, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

After working with my neighbor, I thought of all the similar situations that I have been involved with to find some common ground. From working with people over the years on personal computing issues, one word stands out that describes people working with computer technology: fear.

Fear is very powerful to hold people from doing anything. If you put users, who are generally simple-minded people, facing a powerful and complex environment, and [users] having limited information and expertise about the environment, then sure, there is going to be plenty of fear involved. Such fear will confine users to one specific setting and one environment. Ultimately, it leads to inflexibility, lack of thinking and development, and "lock-in" to a particular environment. In the long-term, and sometimes in the short-term, it is not necessarily a good thing. What happens if your computer needs to be restored to the original factory settings (e.g. major virus) and most of the programs and files that one have used over the years are moved to a new location, or worst, no longer available? You can't always depend on your neighbor to come over and spend several hours leading you through the rebuilding process.

Sometimes, I even tell people to get a Mac. Unfortunately, that recommendation is often with doubt. Not because a Mac is a Mac (and often people speak praise of the Mac), but because of one thing: fear. Fear that people cannot open Microsoft Office documents created on a Wintel PC. Fear that many programs are only available for Microsoft Windows. Fear that the Mac is not widely supported. All of the latter fears are popular myths.

But can you blame the mass of computer users to be generally inflexible? No, and you shouldn't. There is an enormous gap between the technical experts and the general users, and the connection between the two parties is simply "not there." Furthermore, the problems are only getting worse (just look at the "cost" in owning a computer, look at how much information is necessary to maintain a computer). Educating the general users is critical to dig out of the sad reality that is out there --educating people on "what is out there", the drawbacks and precautions about personal computing, and the new developments. Sure this sounds similar to what I stressed in a previous article, but it sheds light on the bigger picture about the use of technology in our society in a context that we can all understand.

Do you agree that fear a major, if not the main contributer, to a lot of the problems with using PCs today?


2004-09-02 07:58:12
firefox mail button.
You can put a mail button in the firefox toolbar. Right click on the toolbar, customize, and then drag the mail button right on there.
2004-09-02 09:07:36
As a Mac user, I get that fear feeling when I work on a Windows box (which I do occasionally, if only at LAN parties :-). I have no fear of using the PC, but I am afraid of doing too much, thinking that if I get into the guts I might move a file instead of copying or aliasing, or whatever. I know that my fear is largely an illusion, and that I wouldn't have a problem if I just learned a little about the box, but I don't want to take the time to learn, since I don't use it often enough.

I think those 2 things go hand-in-hand for a lot of people: they don't take the time to learn (for whatever reason), and so they fear what they don't understand.

P.S. Interestingly enough, I'm not afraid of using Linux. Go figure. :-)

2004-09-02 18:40:15
...what about frugal
Most computer purchases are made based on price. There's lots of competition in the WinTel market that keeps the prices down. Mac's are more expensive and there are less choices.
How many threat vectors prey on the desire to get a freebie or a bargain.
While there's debate about sharing music, software, etc. most folks could care less about the actual debate. They get to spend more on clothes...
I do not believe that Open Source and/or Mac's are that much better quality. As it is with security the problem is as much how the technology is used. And money drives how folks use the stuff.
This isn't some great analysis on my part. This is basically what folks are saying while I'm fixing their computers again and again.
2005-11-25 18:39:35
The Invisible Computer: Why Good Products Can Fail, the Personal Computer Is So Complex, and Information Appliances Are the Solution
Read the book "The Invisible Computer: Why Good Products Can Fail, the Personal Computer Is So Complex, and Information Appliances Are the Solution". What do you think about it?