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Re-Examining the PC-as-Appliance Model

Jan 25, 2008, 23:30 (19 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

There have been several instances where I have written something along the lines that all users really need from their computers is a toaster. Just plug it in, turn it on, and it works. No configuration, no installing.

Applying that kind of model to a PC with any operating system has thus far been an impossible goal to achieve. Even if a device actually had all of the software a user needed, those needs could change, and very likely some of that software would break. Or need updated.

Macs come close to a toaster model, with Linux right there, given the security and automated update features available. Windows? Right, that's our laugh for this week's column. But "close" is still a long ways away. Even the pre-loaded Linux machines being sold out on the market now fall short of a "plug-in-and-forget" operating scenario.

This week, however, I begin to wonder if such a goal is worthy after all.

I raise this question, not because I think it would be impossible for a Linux PC to achieve if developers really put their mind to it, but because I wonder if being a toaster is a really good idea. Maybe there always needs to be an ability to poke around inside a PC's guts to fix or improve it.

What brought this up is the rather mundane problem we have had in our family since Wednesday, when our dryer up and died. Now, I sit here in the home office, waiting for a repairman to come out and see what the deal is. They're late, naturally, and I'm sure this will either be something simple I could have fixed if I knew how (thus setting up resentment at paying for the service call) or something that may warrant replacing the entire device.

It's a bit frustrating, not knowing what's wrong, but knowing I will have to pay someone for a skill set I don't have to fix whatever it is.

With this (albeit minor) crisis in mind, it has occurred to me that perhaps there is merit in leaving the PC open to configuration. I am not saying that every user will have the ability to fix any problem, but at least they have a chance to. That chance is higher than my chances to fix a dryer, even for a computer illiterate.

For one thing, the wealth of howtos on the Internet is far greater for computer problems than for appliances. While this may be a less-than-subtle indicator of the quality of software engineering versus appliance engineering, it still affords the potential for someone to try to fix their PC. Another pro in the PC fix-it column: you don't need special tools or a special skill set in electrical systems to fix them (typically).

I should emphasize that I don't think there's a lot of simplification to be done in software. Usability-wise, every operating system I have seen has issues. Especially from the point of view of "Joe User." But there needs to be, I think, some way to open the hood and let users fix things if they can.

Make things easier, but don't make them wait for a repairman.