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Speaker Dubs PC "A Disaster"

By Katie Jeffreys
Staff Reporter

"The PC is fundamentally a disaster," said Donald A. Norman '57 yesterday to a packed audience in Room 34-101 as he promoted his new book, The Invisible Computer.

In his book, Norman states his belief that "that there is a fundamental mismatch between what industry provides and is able to provide and what the consumer is seeking." Therefore, both groups need to reevaluate the use of technology.

He recommends that "technologies move from a technology centered world to a human centered world." The complexity of technology should increase with time in order to make it more simple for the user.

Computers, as the title of Norman's book indicates, should be invisible. By this, he means they should be as unobtrusive as the motors in a coffee grinder or an egg beater.

These appliances each serve a definite purpose using the same basic technology, Norman said. Such an appliance is simple to understand and use, because it only serves one purpose, he said.

So should it be with computers, Norman said. He cites automatic tellermachines as a notable example of these "Information Appliances."

By creating smaller components that serve a definite purpose and can "talk" to each other, technology becomes mobile as well, he said.

However, the risk of integrating so many small components is that there is a greater chance of failure and incompatibility, Norman added.

As a result, "open worldwide standards" must be established, Norman said. This will allow competing products to maintain compatibility, he said.

Industry competition faces decline

The competition in the computer industry today is steadily decreasing, Norman said. This affinity for one product over another is apparent throughout history as new technologies are introduced. In many cases of competition, consumers think "I don't care who wins just give me one,"according to Norman.

He emphasized that in many cases, it is not the best use of the technology that prevails, but the one that appeals to the mass market.

Once an inflexible standard is set, changes to it are difficult. As an example, Norman offered up the impact of basing all upgrades to operating systems and software on previous versions. When this occurs, the industry cannot make the drastic changes necessary to simplify and best utilize the available technology, Norman said.

This once again emphasizes the advantage of specialized components, Norman said. Once this division occurs, people will be able to rely on their computers as information appliances as much as the do their motorized appliances, he said.

Norman wore many hats

In a question and answer session that followed, when asked to summarize his life in one sentence, Norman said, "Do what makes you happy, but if you're really happy with what you're doing, it's time to change."

In following this philosophy, Norman has assumed many different roles throughout his professional career. He served as an executive at Hewlett-Packard and a vice president and Apple Fellow at Apple Computer. He is also Professor Emeritus of Cognitive Science at the University of California at San Diego.

Norman has just started the Nielsen Norman Group, an executive consulting company that helps companies implement the philosophies presented in The Invisible Computer.

Norman's lecture was the first in the authors@mit.edu series, sponsored by the MIT Press Bookstore and the Humanities and Dewey Libraries. The MIT Laboratory for Computer Science co-sponsored Norman's visit.