What Steve Jobs understood.

October, 2011

Richard Hartman "I can't get on the Internet," my wife complained.

[RIGHT-CLICK], Network Settings, Connect To A Wireless Network, Choose Network, Starry Night (unsecured), WARNING: This is an unsecured network! Connect anyway?, [YES], Connecting..., Connected!, Save this wireless network configuration as the default network?, [NO].

"Okay," I replied, "you're all set." We were vacationing at St. George Island, a picturesque beachfront community on Florida's beautiful "Emerald Coast". One of the amenities of the house we rented was wireless Internet, and it was as essential as the elevator we needed to move my friend's wheelchair-bound mother between floors. Unlike the elevator, however, wireless Internet access is not as simple to use as getting in and pushing a button. The choices presented by the elevator were [1], [2], or [3]. No nefarious warning messages, no complicated or vague errors. "Created by geniuses for use by idiots," Mr. Hartman used to say. Richard Hartman (pictured above) was my AVA Club Advisor in high school. Yes, I was one of the nerds who used to come to your history class to thread the projector. Laugh, but we got out of English class! Even back in the day, Mr. Hartman understood that technology's future was dependent upon one simple concept: The more complex technology becomes as it advances, the simpler it must be for the average person (idiots) to use. He was in no way suggesting that the world was largely comprised of idiots, but rather that if it were, they should be able to thread a projector. Such was the genius of the late Steve Jobs.

As many geeks like me can attest, we are often called upon by friends, neighbors, family, and the like to resolve technical issues with their TVs, stereo systems, and yes, computers. More recently I've been asked to help with people's "smart" phones. My dear, sweet brother, a fellow geek who would do anything for anyone (to whom Mr. Hartman was also a mentor), has a t-shirt that simply says: "No, I will NOT fix your computer." (I think he also has one that says "There's no place like", which is pretty damn funny but non-geeks won't get it). It's not that I mind helping my wife and others with their computers and such, it's that I shouldn't HAVE to. I have been around technology my entire life, witnessed the "computer revolution", and remain fascinated with all things geek. I can explain things like Manchester encoding, quadrature amplitude modulation, and secure shell. The average person would not recognize a dialog between my brother and I as the English language. What Mr. Hartman and Steve Jobs understood, and that far too many technology companies have yet to grasp, is that one shouldn't need to be a rocket scientist to set the clock on their VCR (remember the infamous flashing 12:00).

When you think about it, it's utterly amazing what some of these companies get away with. Imagine you're settling in for a quiet evening after a stressful day of work. You pop a Salisbury with corn and potatoes in the microwave, pour a glass of chardonnay, and point the remote at the TV. Law & Order: SVU, cool! Suddenly and without provocation, the picture freezes. You click the remote. Nothing. Click. Click. Click. Still frozen. The screen then turns totally blue, and says something like, "A problem has been detected and Law & Order: SVU has been shut down to prevent damage to your TV." The message is followed by an overwhelming onslaught of techno-babble and "helpful" suggestions concerning video adapters and drivers, BIOS updates, and memory caching. You turn the TV off and then back on, just in time to see "Created by Dick Wolf". This happens more frequently, escalating to a daily event. I'm thinking the TV goes back to the pimply-faced kid at Big-Box Buy who sold it to you quicker than Detective Elliot Stabler can bring a witness to tears in the interrogation room.

Indulge me further: You leave the car dealer in your shiny new Detroit urban assault vehicle. Loaded, baby! Zero percent AND cash-back! Four-wheel-drive, six speaker Bose, rear-seat DVD for the Sponge Bob set, and in-dash navigation. As you turn into your manicured suburb, a light glows on the instrument panel: "General Car Fault". The engine stops and you coast to the curb. You turn the key and nothing happens. The light persists. You whip out your cell phone and grab Saul's business card (How's that name for a car-salesman?). "Ah," says Saul, "No problem. Take the key, roll-up all the windows, and get out of the car. Lock all the doors. Get back in and it should start just fine." Do what?? Saul is not getting his spiff today.

So why in the name of Steve Jobs do we as consumers simply accept that our technical gadgetry will, from time to time, just flake out? One needn't know what a fly back transformer is to operate a television any more than one must understand fuel injection to drive a car. Yet for some reason, those who hock their advanced technical wizardry on us expect that we be technical wizards to use it. To make matters worse, they equip their stores with the "Nerd Force" and have the gall to ask for real money to make your device ready for your use. And we make them the wealthiest people on the planet. Amazing.

Created by geniuses for use by idiots. This is the culture of genius bestowed upon Apple by Steve Jobs. Had my wife had an iPad, I'm guessing she wouldn't have needed my help. Rest in peace, Mr. Jobs.