How Usable are modern Computers?

How would the world be if ordinary furniture behaved in the same way as current computer software?

Here is a short thought experiment to show how absurd the current state of "usability" has become with modern computer software.


It is a beautiful, sunny day.

You decide that it's finally time you gave in and bought some new furniture for your house. The old lounge is getting a bit threadbare and creaky - obviously it's time to replace it with something better - something Modern.

You really like the look of the new fully electronic recliner that is being advertised in all the magazines. Lots of smiling, happy people asserting that you really have to try one of these babies or you just haven't lived. They contain lots of really cool features never seen before at this price.

You purchase one from a smiling person at the shop, and take it home along with a CDROM containing the installation instructions which tell you that it automatically installs wherever you want it.

When you get it home you find that it really would like to attach itself to the middle of the floor in your living room. It warns you that full recliner functionality may not be available if it is not installed there. This is mildly annoying to you because you want to recline while watching television, but you can't let it install there because you already have a coffee table that's installed to that spot.

The coffee table is impossible to move (it's actually a built-in part of the floor, installed when this version of the house was created).

After much trial and error (and some mild swearing) a compromise is reached. You discover that the recliner can be made to work by wedging it in the doorway between living room and kitchen, in a spot that still allows you to recline while watching tv.

Of course this means that no-one can walk through that doorway to the kitchen anymore, but you have another door to the kitchen elsewhere so it doesn't seem to be too much of a problem. You recline in bliss and spend the afternoon fiddling with the controls on your new toy, pointing out its advanced features to anyone who wanders past.

A few hours later your wife discovers that none of the appliances in the kitchen work anymore.

Unbeknown to you the recliner has reconfigured part of the house electrical wiring when it installed itself so that its controls were fully integrated into the central house system. (This allows the state of the recliner to be determined remotely from any room in the house - one of its new features).

It now transpires that part of the installation process assumed that it was being installed in the centre of the living room floor, and that the power and data cabling were reconfigured accordingly. By installing it in a non-standard location, it has screwed up something under the house.

The telephone support people are sympathetic, but point out that you should _really_ have let it install wherever it wanted, and there is nothing that they can do to help with non-standard installations. They suggest shutting off the power to the house for 10 seconds, but that doesn't do anything.

By now it is early evening, and further calls to customer support only find a recorded message saying that they are open during weekday business hours only. Since today was Friday, you are now facing a weekend without a working kitchen. You recline and ponder what to do next.

Time passes... now it's 9pm...

Strange smells are coming out of the kitchen now whenever you activate the recliner. At 8pm the automatic dishwasher had activated and tried to do its job (unsuccessfully). That seems to be the source of the smell, but there is nothing obvious to be seen from its control panel.

The tension in the household is rising. Serious swearing is happening.

You spend all night crawling around under the house with a torch and screwdriver, fiddling with the frightfully complex array of cables under there but you eventually give up any hope of understanding exactly what it has done to your house.

In fact, it seems to you that the number of cables has at least doubled since you were last under there only the week before.

After much more swearing, and a nice long walk to calm yourself down, you decide to give in and let the recliner have its preferred place, even though it means that you have to destroy the coffee table that is currently on that spot.

You must break the table in order to remove it, but it will be worth it to have a working kitchen again. Oh - and a working recliner too..

Then you discover that you can't just move the recliner to its new location - you have to use its "uninstall" command to remove it out onto the front lawn and then "install" it again into the right place.

Uninstalling the recliner takes the dishwasher and part of the hallway and associated wiring with it out onto your lawn, leaving a smoking crater and a completely non-functional house (none of the light switches or power points work anymore).

After many fruitless attempts at reinstalling you realise that this was a one-way process and there is no way to put it back. Without working power the recliner refuses to re-install. It points out to you in a condescending voice that of course it can't be installed into a house without working power.

At this point you do the only sensible thing: you hire a bulldozer, knock the house down and build a new one, with your recliner carefully built into the centre of the living room floor.

Authors note: most of this rant is aimed at one particular "operating system", but there are some elements of this story that are universally relevant.