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News

Do we really care what software it’s running?

Is there any other consumer electronic device bar a computer, phone or handheld where we actually care what software is running inside?

I walked into my local electrical superstore last week, on the search for a washing machine. It’s a trivial job, granted, and one that very few people want to hear about. And with good reason, too. For most people go into a shop and simply pick the washing machine that takes their fancy, and that’s about the depth of the decision. They might compare a few select features on the card next to the product, and they might jump from shop to shop to save a few quid. But you rarely see people heading off to the local newsagent to pick up a copy of Washing Machine Review. Instead, at most, people generally don’t go beyond the user reviews found at the bottom of websites. It’s never the wisest move, granted, but we all know it happens.

Thing is, there were a couple of dozen different washing machines decorating the shop. They came in different colours, different sizes, had different capabilities and different price tags. Not one of the information tags, however, made any point of boasting about the user interface. Or the operating system that powered the washing machine. Or the platform that it ran on. Instead, it’s generally accepted that it’s a piece of hardware that does a job, and the software hides away in the background, never to be noticed.

Walking around the store, it struck me that similar assumptions apply to televisions, to DVD players, to stereos, to kitchen equipment, to pretty much 80% of the shop from what we could see. And yet most products in there had a user interface somewhere along the line. It’s just we weren’t getting our knickers in a twist about it.
I’ve discussed the idea of the implicit operating system before in these pages, and the more I see how most other areas of technology work, the more drawn I am towards it. Granted, there’s 5% of us who love to tinker, who will always be opening the proverbial bonnet, and who will play with the operating system as much as we can. But the rest? It just needs to work. It’s stating the obvious, I’m not oblivious to that, but there’s also a mentality issue that has to be broken here.

For while people tend to stick to certain brands when buying their white goods, there’s an acceptance that they’re willing to relearn how certain things work to get them going. Granted, it’s not a perfect parallel, as the range of jobs something like a fridge freezer can do is understandably limited, and thus there’s less to learn. Yet take a modern microwave oven, which at times can look so complicated you wonder if Matthew Broderick could start thermonuclear war using it. That, for me, is the electrical device with the worst interface as a rule that I’ve ever met, and yet nobody seems to give two figs about it.

My wish, then, is that that kind of thinking could apply across the mass market of computing. Namely that there’s a not-unreasonable expectation that a modern operating system will work, and that it might just take a little bit of time to get used to new surroundings. It’s not radical thinking, but currently, users are being seemingly offered a choice when they buy a new computer, even if Windows seems to be the only one that most stores will offer. The thing is? The operating system simply shouldn’t be sold as a feature. It should just work. Whether you choose to pay for one or not, when we’re in a time where the OS is a big selling point of any piece of technology, then you have to conclude that something has gone wrong.

I decided, after some pondering, that I wouldn’t bother the sales staff  with these thoughts, however…

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