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Newsweek Gets a Clue: PCs Are Hard To Use

Rodney O. Lain - 1999.02.17

This article was originally published on The, a site which no longer exists. It is copyright 1999 by RAC Enterprises, which also seems to no longer exist. It is thus reprinted here without permission (which we would gladly obtain if possible.) Links have been retained when possible, but many go to the Internet Wayback Machine.

truth: at first it scoffed . . . eventually, it is self-evident
 - paraphrase of a profound statement about the stages in which truth is accepted

epiphany (i-pif-uh-nee) noun

  1. an intuitive grasp of reality through something (as an event) usually simple and striking;
  2. a sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something

I must admit, I love words. I'm not a wordsmith, but I play one on the Internet.

As a wannabe wordsmith, I'm always reading and looking for the perfect word to express what I am thinking or feeling. However, while scanning this week's issue of Newsweek magazine (the February 15, 1999, issue), I immediately thought about a word that described the way one particular Newsweek columnist was probably thinking and feeling as he wrote about the Microsoft antitrust trial: the word was "epiphany."

In layman's terms, an epiphany is the realization of something that is obvious, but hasn't been recognized as obvious until some enlightening event occurs that forces a person to see that-which-wasn't-considered-obvious in a new light. For example, let's say that, for years, you've always saw your father as a mean, callous, old grouch, incapable of showing emotion. Then when something earth shattering happens, like the Minnesota Vikings' not going to the Super Bowl, he breaks down and cries openly. Loudly. Continuously. Then you began to realize something that has been evident all along to those with eyes to see: hey, Dad really is sensitive.

That, my friends, is an epiphany.

Now what in the world does this have to do with things Macintosh? Read on...

That Newsweek article that I'd mentioned at the beginning of this column is titled "A Window on Their World: The real lesson of Microsoft's videotape follies is that computers are still too hard to use." The author is Steven Levy. You can read Levy's column yourself by getting a copy of the magazine and turning to page 61.

In his column, Levy unknowingly gives a sideways advertisement for the Macintosh. He recaps the oft-repeated details concerning Microsoft's recent embarrassing submission of doctored videotaped experiment in their antitrust trial, which was supposed to prove their argument that disabling the Internet Explorer portion of Windows 98 prevents all of Windows 98 from functioning as intended. But what Levy's column dwells on is "the fascinating nature of that second tape [that Microsoft attorneys produced], showed in court uncut." That video footage, according to Levy, "provided a damning snapshot of computer use, circa 1999. While the experiment itself involved esoteric tasks, Jim Allchin had to do something every computer user dreads: installing programs and running the Internet on a new PC."

That is Levy's epiphany, folks. Someone his finally realized - or has admitted publicly - that PeeCees are hard to use, after all of these years Windows upgrades. And it took someone from Microsoft to emphasize the point. You see, Allchin is a Vice President at Microsoft - affectionately known as "The Windows guy." And he, of all people, had major problems with installing and using the operating system that's lauded for being "as good as a Mac." It would be hilarious, if it wasn't for the sad fact that Windows runs on 90 percent of the world's computer desktops. Read for yourself the sad account:

"'I'm going to take my life into my hands,' [Allchin] announced when the tape began, 'and connect on, hopefully, the Internet.'

"Then the connection kept dropping out. Then came a weird error message he attributed to the IBM [ThinkPad he was using]. And then there were things that were not errors, but simply the sorts of annoying user-hostile phenomena that are all too familiar: endless dialogue boxes, loud unwanted music, annoying rebooting, cluttered menus, even tough-to-open shrink-wrapped software boxes. At one point, Allchin wanted to install a Microsoft program that would not work until he keyed in the 11-digit number on the license agreement, written too small for him to see without his glasses (his assistant read the numbers to him). Then the Windows Guy didn't know what to do next. 'It didn't tell me to reboot,' he mused. 'But I thought you were supposed to reboot...'"

Need I quote anymore?

Now I said that all of this was a sideways advertisement for the Macintosh. It is. I've quoted from this article all weekend as I worked the aisles of the Apple Store Within A Store at my local CompUSA. I surprised my managers and my coworkers by spending the whole weekend (8-hour shifts on both Saturday and Sunday) in the SWIAS, without once having to talk about PeeCees. There were so many people there - and, yes, they were buying iMacs and Blue G3s - that I didn't even take a 10-minute break Saturday nor Sunday. When I did a sales pitch to a customer, I always reminded them of how complex the Wintel PC is, by telling them that even Microsoft VP Jim "The Windows Guy" Allchin can't work his PC. Then I segued (another favorite word of mine) into an impressively quick-and-dirty demo of plugging/unplugging USB peripherals, installing the software on the iMac ("gotcha," I tell them - iMac's software is preinstalled at the OEM), and getting onto the Internet.

Usually, they then timidly ask me how do I install software (I didn't realize why they were so timid in asking that question until reading about Allchin - another epiphany, perhaps?). I always tell them

  1. pop in the CD-ROM
  2. double-click the descriptive icon that "magically" appears on the desktop
  3. sit back and do what the instructions tell you.

"That's all?" they ask.

"That's all," I reply. And to rub it in, I remind them of Jim Allchin's installation woes.

By the time I finish with them, they're already sold, and all I need to do is ask them the Jobsian question: what's your favorite color?

It's great to see when people reach enlightenment about the Mac, and about Windows. It's even better to see that more of the media and the public are seeing the light also. But why did it take so doggone long, Steven Levy?

And why did it have to be poor Jim Allchin who suffered with tackling Windows? He didn't deserve such frustration and embarrassment.

The person doing that demonstration should have been Bill Gates :-)

Editor's Note: the opinion piece quoted in this column is © 1999 Newsweek, Inc.

- Rodney O. Lain

Rodney O. Lain, a former university English and journalism instructor, works full-time as a software developer and works part-time at a local CompUSA Apple Store Within A Store. A card-carrying member of the local Macintosh User Group Mini'app'les, Rodney writes this column exclusively for His greatest desire is to become an African-American Guy Kawasaki. A self-professed "workaholic writer," he waxes prolifically about race, religion, and the "right OS" at "Free Your Mind & Your Behind Will Follow", his unabashedly pro-Mac website. When he's not cranking out his column, he collects John Byrne comic books, jogs, and attempts to complete his first novel. He lives in Eagan, Minnesota, a southern suburb of St. Paul.

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