Frank Beacham /
09.04.2002 12:00 AM
The Fine Art of Simplicity
The public tolerance for badly designed machines is wearing thin. I witness the annoyance everyday, as bewildered users wrestle with illogical devices at work and play. Frustration with geek complexity is fueling a quiet revolt. Tools that work simply and reliably are coveted.

Perhaps, when the high-tech economic bubble burst, so did the "wow factor" of technology for technology's sake. With the gadget gold rush over, many technologies stood naked - the hazy fog of the emperor's clothes no longer diverting genuine scrutiny.

Even though personal computers and the Internet have changed our lives forever, the average person still finds information technology far too difficult to use. After all these years of refinements and "upgrades," the computer industry still speaks in mysterious acronyms and abstract terminology that can glaze the eyes of even the best-educated among us.

For many, the basic task of setting up a new personal computer and connecting it to the Internet remains a daunting job. Some of the most popular software applications - following years of revisions - remain rigid and unintuitive. The user is forced to conform to the software's arcane interface or else.

Building machines that react to human intuition, rather than artificial commands, is a task demanding the utmost creativity. Few have the talent to do it well. Software, just as a great novel, can be written in such a way that leaves all the geekiness behind. When success is achieved, the mind forgets the machine. We transcend the mechanics of our tools. At this point, genuine productivity - not the fake kind sold in the computer ads - is achieved.

Great technology is created by artists, not technicians. The best information technology available today usually comes from small entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, it's often not found on the shelves at CompUSA.

WORD WOES

I gained insight on this subject during a recent book project, for which I used the industry-standard word processing application, Microsoft Word. I cite word processing here as an example only because it's probably the most common computer application that all of us use. The observation applies equally to any computer software, whether it's designed to manipulate video, still images, audio or Web pages.

My project, a full-length formatted book, forced me to dig deeper into Word than I ever had before. As I did, I became increasingly frustrated. Not only was the application not intuitive, but its cryptic "help" messages and Microsoft's "knowledge base" only led me into a deeper abyss.

I finally finished the project with the help of other Word users who had preceded me along the same trail of frustration. Not one of these heavy users had a good thing to say about Word. Repeatedly, I was told, the dominant word processing application dominates only because it's "the industry standard."

Funny, I remember when the typewriter was the industry standard and it was a machine that worked extremely well. No learning curve, simple, consistent, and reliable. Just start typing Why, I wondered, couldn't someone emulate the venerable old typewriter in software?

Then, out of the blue, comes an advertising mailer about a portable word processing keyboard called the AlphaSmart 3000. I almost tossed the flyer. However, the lavish endorsements of a long list of professional writers grabbed my attention.


(click thumbnail)
The AlphaSmart 3000
Here was an entire computer - hardware and software - that at a base price of about $200 actually cost less than a single copy of Microsoft's product. Yet many serious writers touted it as a superior way to compose the written word.

My high-tech friends laugh when I describe the AlphaSmart 3000. It's essentially a full-size keyboard with a four-line, forty-character LCD display (no backlighting). It weighs two pounds and runs up to 700 hours on three AA batteries. It holds a total of 100 pages of single-spaced, plain text, allocated in 12-page segments among eight files, each accessed with an assigned key.

Text can be uploaded to virtually any computer word processing program by hitting a single "Send" key. Connectivity is available via USB, PS/2 or AT keyboard connection, ADB or IrDA. That's about all there is to it.

Turn the AlphaSmart on and simply start typing. There is no "save" function because each letter is saved automatically as you type. The screen is not backlit, but the letters are big, bold and clear. The keys are comfortable and robust. There's no on-board formatting capability; that function is reserved for the computer's full word processor. This is a lean, mean writing machine that's super-rugged and looks suspiciously like a discontinued Apple product from the Newton era called an "eMate."

SUBTLE DISTINCTION

As you can see, the genius of the AlphaSmart is not in its modest technical specs. Rather, it's in the way the device naturally and effectively serves humans as they struggle to create written words. It's a very subtle distinction, but the sophisticated inventors of the AlphaSmart keyboard viewed their design task not just to expand computer technology by layering on additional features, but to better assist ordinary people in accomplishing a challenging task.

Originally designed by former Apple Computer engineers for use in school classrooms, the AlphaSmart keyboard found an unexpected cult following among writers that range from journalists to novelists. A Nevada company called SmartInput responded to these new customers by creating a special software package of WritersTools that enhances it even further.

"It's so much easier to use than taking along my expensive and cumbersome laptop, waiting for it to warm up, plugging in the mouse, worrying about theft. I love this product," said Azriela Jaffe, an author and syndicated newspaper columnist who uses an AlphaSmart.

When I first read about the device, I must admit that it sounded like a low-tech kid's toy. Only with hands-on use, did I appreciate its intelligent simplicity. Here was a typewriter - a very good one at that - emulated in software.

This fall, AlphaSmart takes another bold step in simplicity by introducing the first laptop with a full-sized keyboard to be powered by the Palm operating system. Called Dana, this two-pound PC alternative will run over 10,000 existing Palm applications, plus a parcel of new ones designed for its backlit widescreen LCD display.

David Nagel, president of PalmSource, touted Dana at the summer PCExpo in New York City as one of the most innovative new computer designs to come along in years.

To be fair, I also evaluated an AlphaSmart competitor, the QuickPAD Pro from QuickPAD Technology Corp. of Mountain View, CA. Though it offered more features including a larger screen, more lines of text, adjustable fonts, a Compact Flash card slot and a suite of built-in software applications, the QuickPAD Pro didn't come close to the sophisticated design of the AlphaSmart 3000.

It was a bit geeky, with remnants of the DOS operating system - such as the use of DOS file extensions and menu selections. Most annoying was the dim, low-contrast screen with hard-to-read jagged fonts. The aesthetic of the Alpha-Smart is missing from the more full-featured QuickPAD Pro.

High-tech companies love to bandy about the i-word - innovation - in describing their new products. But, unfortunately, most do little more than lard on meaningless functions to justify charging customers for a continuing string of upgrades.

True innovation in information technology is about designing intelligent tools that enhance the human experience. After all these years, it took a small, creative company to build a better word processor. Now, if we could only apply the same level of design intelligence to more complex tasks. Perhaps digital television would be a good start.

(The writer's version of the AlphaSmart 3000 is available from SmartInput of Sparks, NV; 775-358-5533 or www.smartinput.com/. You can contact AlphaSmart of Los Gatos, CA at 408-355-1000 or www.alphasmart.com/.)


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