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Editor's Note: PC-Phobia--Would a New GUI Paradigm Help?

Apr 23, 2004, 23:30 (40 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

The word is getting around at our new church that I am some kind of "tech guru" (their term, not mine). So, it was inevitable that I would start to get those informal consultive questions about how to set up this, or deal with that, or work with the other thing.

You very likely know these kinds of queries: those little asides you get at parties and family gatherings, gently (or not so gently) asking for a little help on their PCs. I have remarked to my wife that I often know what doctors and lawyers go through when they are pressed for free advice.

It makes little difference to these folks that I use Linux; they hear computer and immediately assume that I can help them with Windows. Unfortunately, I can help them with Windows, because Windows is so stupidly easy compared to Linux. So, because I don't own one of those "No, I will not fix your computer" t-shirts you can get at ThinkGeek, I end up answering the questions.

Recently, the particular issue has been getting a new church staffer trained up on very basic computer skills. I mean very basic: checking e-mail, surfing the Net, using the word processor. The staffer I am to train is not looking forward to this, and has put off one scheduled training session already.

This staffer's problem with computers borders on downright fear, so it is a bit extreme. But this is not the first time I have seen people get trepidacious about operating PCs, and it won't be the last. Which makes me ask the question, what's so hard about using a PC?

This question is valid for all popular operating systems, not just Linux, because with few exceptions, all of these systems use pretty much the same GUI concept: window, menu, dialog box. There are variations of a theme between all of the OSs, and within the desktop environments and window managers of the *Nix family, but essentially that's what they all use.

I am not asking this question as a informal jibe, either. I would like to know what it is about computers that so intimidates people. People don't get this worried about their telephones, or their TVs, or their microwaves. But they do tend to fret about their VCRs and TiVOs. Why? Because the interfaces are not as intuitive. Does the same apply to the average PC GUI?

When the folks as the Xerox PARC came up with the basic premise for the GUI we use today, they were envisioning the computer screen as a desktop, with file folders and pieces of paper visually represented by their electronic counterparts. That model still holds true today. But is it the right model?

The desktop model assumes that people know how to use a real-world desktop. I look at my desktop here at the office and I don't even think I qualify for that. Papers, bills, a laptop, a Star Trek toy phaser (the cats hate it), and a whole bunch of uncluttered junk is piled on my desktop. My file drawers are no better. One drawer is crammed with peripherals, the other with software I use of have used over the years. So I do not think I am a desktop expert.

Nor are many people who live and work in Western society. Many blue-collar workers don't use desks at their jobs. Students use desks, but in the secondary and higher education realms, desks tend to be those little square-foot things ergonomically designed for right-handed people.

So was using the desktop as a model a good idea?

For people like me, it does not seem to matter. It did not take me long to learn to use this GUI (although I still have nightmares about the old Windows 386 interface that was on our first PS/2 computer). So what makes this GUI intuitive for me and not others?

My take on this is that people who are not good with computers often do not know what computers can do and, more significantly, what they really need to do with computers. Sure, they can rattle off a set of tasks they want to accomplish (read e-mail, type a letter, surf the Internet), but until they understand how using a PC to do these things is better than the way they used to do things (pick up the phone, write on a piece of paper, go to the library), there will be this resistance to learning the GUI.

But making the GUI more intuitive could be one way to lessen that resistance. This is a question that the open source community should really try to answer, as a breakthrough here could lead to better acceptance of OSS and PCs in general.

This will take a lot of effort, to think of a new paradigm. Sun's Looking Glass seems a start, but it reminds me of those 3D virtual reality browsers that were so hyped a few years back. I did not care for them then, and I am hoping that when I actually get to use Looking Glass the same won't be true.

So, I'll leave the questions with you: why are people nervous about PCs and will a new GUI help the problem? Something to think about as we ply out open-source trade.