Magazine article Management Today

A User Hostile Interface

Magazine article Management Today

A User Hostile Interface

Article excerpt

A USER HOSTILE INTER FACE

The personal computer has only been around for the last few years, so it's still fairly primitive. Plenty of design improvements remain to be made James Woudhuysen In pocket computers, the Japanese insist not only on minuscule keys, but also on copperplate typography, burnished gold and embarrassing. Still, in American laptops, Grid's slim, faintly military but nevertheless tasteful boxes have helped it take nearly 15% of the US laptop market, behind giants Toshiba and Zenith (more than 20% each), but ahead of juggernaut NEC (10%). Again, in personal computers, Nokia Data's Alfaskop range boasts VDUs contoured, at their backs, like gentle buttocks. Whether bad, good or just a fine bit of Finnish fun, it seems, the industrial design of computers is an important business nowadays.

For years, it is true, IBM has quietly used Richard Sapper, a West German who lives in Italy, to give visual coherence to its mainframes. Equally, Olivetti has long contracted Ettore Sottsass and fellow Milanese designers Perry King and Santiago Miranda to portray its computers as active, animistic beings, complete with controls that draw upon the totems of Aztec and Inca culture to explain themselves. But in today's somewhat stagnant computer industry, the form given to a new machine has become a critical determinant of market success. Insiders say that the technology inside different computer companies' wares is much of a muchness. What really counts now is marketing, software, service ... and the look and feel of the kit.

Take, for example, the design of Steve Jobs' Next computer. Conceived by Hartmut Esslinger of Frog, a West German studio with offices in Campbell, California, Next's construction, shape and details are a skilful attempt to disguise the volume and weight of an enormous machine. Next is a one-foot-square cube cast in a magnesium alloy, a tough precision material which gives a sturdier kind of sound when you knock it than does sheet steel. Altogether, the thing has a poise which belies its bulk.

Many of the world's top computer designers are European: Grid's laptops, for instance, are done by Britain's Bill Moggridge, of ID Two in San Francisco. Europe is where computer markets are least saturated. Yet European computer manufacturers face difficult times. Over-reliant on mainframes, late into the UNIX operating system, more fond of linking up with Americans and Japanese than with each other, companies like Siemens, Nixdorf, ICL and Philips are no match even for Olivetti in the battle against Big Blue and Digital. This is also the case in design, where only that of Olivetti is very memorable. What improvements, then, can we look forward to as EC computer-makers square up for the battle royal ahead?

We can continue to hope for, but are unlikely to see much of, voice operation. Useful sometimes, it is still a costly business. In the same way, keyboards hooked up to processors by beams of infra-red are fun -- they allow keyboards to perch commodiously on laps -- but they are unlikely to make much impact. With the exception of the stylus and digitised pad that have appeared in the `Freestyle' computers of Wang, most computer input devices will continue to consist of QWERTY and mice.

What computers need is not so much clever input devices as means of stopping keys from getting filthy and keyboard crevices from getting dusty. I have no idea how to clean the keyboard of my own computer, just as I am too lazy to clean the screen of my VDU as often as it needs to be cleaned. …

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