A TINKERERS TALE
Jamshed Avari | 22 April 2010
WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU POPPED THE LID OFF YOUR PC? OR TOOK A SCREWDRIVER TO YOUR LAPTOP?
JAMSHED AVARI, deputy editor
A TINKERER'S TALE
I might be part of one of the last generations of people who regularly open out their computers. Back when I got my first PC, it was a thrill watching the service engineer come over and open it out whenever things got problematic or needed to be upgraded. I learnt by watching firsthand which components fitted in with each other, what types of plugs went where, and how to handle all of it. Installing a sound card, a network card, more RAM, and my very first CD-ROM drive were all adventures! Pretty soon, the engineer didn’t need to come over anymore.
Before sealed laptops became the norm and before all the big brands taped “Warranty Void” stickers all over their products, it was completely normal to learn about how things work by buying all the parts for a PC and assembling it at home. Honestly, everything’s integrated and there aren’t that many separate parts to buy anymore. And it’s pretty difficult to plug anything in the wrong way! But few really go through this process now and learn what goes on inside their machines.
COMPUTERS CAN’T BE SOLD BECAUSE OF THEIR SPEED RATINGS AND BUZZWORD COUNTS ANYMORE
This also plays in to our movement away from computers, with their multifarious functions, to single-purpose appliances. Laptops are easy to buy, and decisions are often swung on looks alone. Buyers who are attracted by easily accessible RAM slots are firmly in the minority now, so all that can be hidden away in favor of smoother lines and sleeker curves. Game consoles are so uncomplicated—just one configuration for all, no upgrades, no internal tweaks. If something goes wrong, the whole thing can be sent in for repairs or replacement. The tablet devices we see emerging everywhere are thin and light, super portable, and brilliant for flicking through Web pages on. Our most famous example, the iPad, hides its file system and pigeonholes you into very specific types of uses and ways to access content, unlike a computer on which you’re free to do pretty much what you like. These products are more approachable and attuned to the needs of ordinary users.
It’s both a good and a bad thing. Good because we’re moving to a place where computers are just the interfaces to a digital world—the less we know about them, the less intrusive they are and the more we get to focus on content rather than the means we use to get to it. Bad because it’s the end of an era of discovery and tinkering—there’s no excitement about being a geek anymore! No one is driven by curiosity to find out how they work!
That means we all have to change our thinking. Products aren’t about technology, they’re about usage. Software isn’t about features, it’s about results. Computers can’t be sold because of their speed ratings and buzzword counts; they have to be demonstrably better than before. And what we’re seeing now is the result of innovation that revolves around the average consumer who simply wants to improve his life.
Maybe mainstream gadgets going forward will be less open and less tinkerable with. And maybe that's better than having them gather dust because they were just too complicated to use.