GUI Bytes

Talking to Computers

can you imagine a typical open office with fifty people talking to their computers?

Sometimes you have to wonder about what is presented as progress. Along with all of the good things that technology has delivered, the marketing gurus have come up with at least a few items of questionable value.

One of my favorites is the Apple iMac. You know, the one with the nearly transparent blue case (I guess you even have a choice of colors, now). Anything that trendy is going to look like garage sale merchandise within a year or two. Remember those transparent telephones and yo-yos? This isn't Apple's first design goof; the Mac had that tiny integral monitor, and before that was the Lisa, which I almost bought. Maybe that's where the old designers from Rambler went when that company went out of business.

Of course, it's hard to tell what is going to work and what isn't. Here are a few quotations to illustrate the point.

"This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us." Western Union internal memo, 1876.

"Where a calculator on the ENIAC is equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may have only 1,000 vacuum tubes and perhaps weigh 1-1/2 tons." Popular Mechanics, March 1949.

"There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home." Ken Olson, President, Digital Equipment, 1977.

I'll stick my neck out a little. I have to question the value of computers that are able to understand and generate speech. Obviously, a computer that could accurately translate, say, English into Japanese, on the fly would be a wonderful and useful device.

But, for everyday use, it seems to have a long way to go. Software companies have been far too eager to use terms like "user friendly" and "intuitive", but they are getting close. Given their complexity and versatility, they are now remarkably easy to use. Still people do have problems. And if they have problems with what we now have, will it be any easier for them to speak clearly and consistently enough for the computer to work all of the time?

Even if we get past that barrier, can you imagine a typical open office with fifty people talking to their computers? Especially when the system crashes?

1999 Sheldon Wolfe, RA, CSI, CCS, CCCA, 
on the web at 
December 1999

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