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AT LARGE: Look into my eyes

AT LARGE: Look into my eyes

I got an interesting phone call the other day. Rather flattering one, actually. It was from a PR apparatchik who, rather than wanting to give me information in the hope that I might publish it somewhere (the usual raison d'être of the profession), wanted me to tell her stuff. She was, she said, "approaching industry influencers to find out their opinions about something or other".

I'm paraphrasing there, because my ego began to glaze over once I'd been told I was an "industry influencer" and I kind of lost track of the end of the sentence. I vaguely recall the remainder of the conversation having to do with software piracy. My opinion on that is that it is a "bad thing" and I'm prepared to be on record about it. There may well have been more to the conversation, but I was dizzy with power by then and my mind had moved on to other things.

Using my new-found influence, then, I'd like to spell out a few changes to the way the industry ought to be run from now on.

My main issue is speed. We have enough of it thank you, we don't need any more. Current-generation computers are wicked fast, and indeed quite fast enough to do what the vast majority of people want to do with their computers. I'm getting a little tired of companies coming out with machines that offer what amounts to an imperceptible improvement in the time it takes for Word's font menu to open and calling that a "breakthrough".

The argument I get back from hardware makers whenever I make this point is that "high-end gamers" want the extra performance for greater realism in their shoot-em-ups. Leaving aside for a moment the oxymoron (the juxtaposition of "high-end" with people whose computers are essentially toys), wouldn't these people actually prefer games that were so playable, and so entertaining, that they weren't worried about how many million polygons per second were being buffered? If the effort being pumped into making faster processors and faster graphics chips were instead pumped into writing games that were worth playing, the "high-end gamers" would be equally satisfied, I assure you.

Likewise for the rest of us "low-end" people whose computers are the tools by which we make our living. I've got a pretty fast computer. There are faster computers out there, but mine's pretty fast. I generally don't find myself complaining about how slow Microsoft Word is, or how long it takes FileMaker to find a particular record. These things are done plenty fast enough.

But you know what? Every once in a while it crashes. Not often, mind you, but occasionally. When it does, I have to restart it, and sometimes I even lose work. While it's restarting, I'm getting nothing done - when the thing isn't moving, I'm singularly unimpressed by how fast the maker says it can go. Other people I know have computers that crash even more often than mine does. Some of them restart their machines several times daily, believing that this is simply a part of life and should be accepted - after all, it's a 2GHz processor.

So I say to all computer makers whose machines occasionally crash (this means all of you): stop making them faster and instead make them better. Give me a computer that will, without fail, always do what I want it to do without ever falling over itself, and I will not care in the slightest how quickly it does it.

For as long as the focus of industry investment is on showing off for the "high-end" instead of making things truly functional for the rest of us, we all suffer.

The same thing goes for software developers. Features are not as important as functionality. When I buy a piece of software, I expect it to work as near to perfectly as possible. If there is a problem, I expect it to be fixed at no charge. I do not want the bug fix to be included in a "service pack" containing three gazillion new features that I have to pay for. If I want the features, OK, I'll pay for them. But not until the software works.

These suggestions may seem obvious, but they go quite against the grain of what hardware and software developers want. They want me to have a computer that doesn't work right, so that next year they can sell me another one that works a little better and I'll think it's worth shelling out. Or if it's not better, at least it's faster. Or it recovers better after a crash.

Not good enough. Do better. The "influencer" has spoken.

Matthew JC. Powell promises not to use his powers for evil. Influence him on mjcp@optushome.com.au.


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