I'm going to admit it. I've been in the computer industry for 40 years, and I can't use three quarters of the Windows applications on the market. Why? Because I'm just too dumb. That's right. Too damn dumb. I've only spent the past 20 years writing perhaps the longest-running and largest computer dictionary/encyclopedia in the world, and I'm just too dumb to use the software out there. Once again, it's 'cause I'm just too dumb. I don't know how the average Joe on the street feels, but I hope I've made my point.

After all, isn't that what everybody is complaining about: the ever-increasing costs of getting users trained and keeping their PCs up-to-date. Now I hear it over and over, and we'll be hearing it more since 2000 is the year of the "embedded system." Simple Internet appliances, easy-to-use handhelds, lightweight, wireless this and thats ... all because the current eight skillion desktop applications are just too hard to use. So tell me dear readers, just how is this coming about? Aren't these new, dedicated, simple, wondermachines being developed by the same jerks that have given us bloated office suites and all the other crap we have grown to despise? How is it that now, all of a sudden, we're going to find designers that understand how people think when, for the past 20 years, we haven't been able to dig up a half-dozen of them over the entire planet?

When will it occur to the great minds in the software industry that they should simply take their applications and redesign them so humans ? dummies like me ? can use them? For example, there are only a handful of things you do all the time with a database program, but have you ever seen a basic database menu that lists create database structure, enter, edit, view, ask, report and change structure? Nope, you never did, and you probably never will. All these functions are buried under multiple menus, submenus, sub-submenus, right clicks and any other obtuse convention you can think of.

So while we're trashing the desktop PC and looking for the panacea to replace it, maybe we should consider getting back to basics and finding a way to design programs for our billion PCs that human beings can use without a college course in each application. Silicon Valley seems unable to do this, so maybe it's time to turn the job over to a whole new group. Ten years ago, I tested our dictionary interface at a friend's bridal shop where 20 middle-aged women who had never touched a computer keyboard in their lives tried to use what I thought was a brilliant design.

Those women taught me more in one day than I could have learned in a year. Problem is, because of their experience, those very same women were more savvy than I wanted them to be the next time I asked them to test it, because they already had a sense of what was supposed to happen. I learned that the job of testing a user interface is extraordinarily difficult, but it's essential that we learn how, or the crappy design of our desktop applications will just wind up in everything else that we create. What do you think?

I invite your comments. Please e-mail me.


Alan Freedman is the most noted computer lexicographer in the industry. With nearly 40 years of experience, he is internationally known for his ability to make sense of high tech. Check out his award-winning Computer Desktop Encyclopedia online.