An idiotic technical problem and a strange phone call highlighted something I dismissed in most of the tributes to and lamentations about Steve Jobs this week .
The idiotic technical problem was a Verizon Fios router that decided – gradually, over several days – that it didn't like all the messy, noisy user-ish traffic from applications and servers I kept passing through it, so it was going to quit carrying all that stuff.
It wasn't obvious about it. I didn't get any big-flag warnings that the router had quit or the Internet at large was rejecting my content. The router gave every sign of working just fine on every level of the OSI networking stack except the ones that were important to anything users on this side of it wanted to do.
When Verizon pinged it to say hello and ask how things were going, it pinged right back.
And it kept my VoIP line working just fine, because all the messy voice traffic is wrapped up so neatly in SIP at Layer 5. It just didn't like all the junk that wanted to squeeze through on Layers 6 and 7 – the ones any humans using the network actually cared about.
All the usual tests that would tell me the router was the one sandbagging me said the router seemed to be working just fine and the problem must be something else – a switch in the corner, a bad Ethernet cable or corrupted TCP/IP stack, networking driver or other bit of config on my laptop.
It was so non-obvious I spent a day and a half cleaning out my laptop and then dirtying it up again trying to convince it to talk to the Internet again.
I uninstalled services and reinstalled, scanned for malware, scanned again, scanned a different way, stripped out old drivers, installed new drivers, replaced old drivers because the new ones might be buggy, uninstalled updates that might have corrupted something, reinstalled updates because they were clearly righteous.
I Fixed apps, Repaired Windows, added modules, removed modules and waded shin deep in the sewage and plaque of obsolesence that makes the Registry an anthropological dig through the decomposing remains of deceased software, rousted out homeless bits of .inf and .sys and winxs and all the rest of cruft and nonsense that even clean Windows apps (and Windows) leaves behind because they don't really care if they make it harder or slower to use the system for work that does not involve maintaining the system itself.
No amount of swearing proved effective.
Nothing hinted that the laptop was not the source of the problem.
Steve Jobs passed away and my computer responded by going into isolation from the network.
At just the time I was wondering if it was too dark out to be able to accurately lay my laptop down in the road and run over it a few times , I got a call from a former landlady who is only a luddite involuntarily, worried that the loss of Steve Jobs was going to make dealing with the computers she had to use every day even harder for her than it already was.
"My first computer was a Mac," she said, apparently assuming my ability to network her house without setting it on fire meant I was qualified to say how quickly her experience with computers would deteriorate into chaos in the absence of the man who represented, for her, an acknowledgement that her confusion was not normal and that computers shouldn't be as difficult to use as they clearly are.
Steve Jobs: Defender of the usable computer? Not usually.
What was going to happen now that Steve Jobs is gone?
In the short term, not much, I told her. Jobs made (comparatively) easy computing cool, then proved it could be profitable, too. The rest of the industry has been moving that way, slowly and reluctantly, since the early days of Apple even though most of it only took usability seriously when users started using Web browsers as the interface to nearly everything they did and rejected even the most heavily engineered "user-friendly" user-interfaces and information-access architectures.
Apple's slogan "Think Different" and Jobs' "Stay hungry, stay foolish" are both good slogans, though neither touches the most important principle Jobs ever impressed into the designs of Apple products or evangelized to the industry at large:
Computers don't have to be hard to use. The main goal of good design should be that even the most complex technology should be easy to use.
That was the main comparison and main selling point between PCs and Macs in the early days, but has been shifting from a hot topic to a cool one ever since Microsoft started putting pictures on top of DOS with Windows and made the random hunt randomly through menus the standard way to discover functions in Windows applications.
Mac interface is elegant, but not always easy
I never found Macs that easy to use, personally.
Though every piece of Mac software I've ever seen is more attractive almost anything I've ever run on Windows (or ever dated, if it comes to that), I've always found it more difficult to figure out how to do something I want to do on a Mac than it was on Windows.
Windows also makes it a lot easier to raise the hood and poke at the pieces that make Windows run the way I want it to.
In Windows it's easier to find the thing that's keeping the other thing from happening or the one that has to be launched before anything else will happen or the one that has to be turned off, deleted and buried at the crossroads by the light of a full moon to keep it from restarting with every reboot and turning on the flashing red neon "Hack Me" sign.
It's also easier to waste a whole day fixing things that aren't broken but won't tell you that with enough confidence that you can believe them. Windows usually won't really you where the problem really lies, or what bit of technology actually doing the lying.
Macs aren't perfect, either
Neither will a Mac, for the most part.
There may be fewer conflicts or problems if you buy and use only Mac equipment.
When something goes wrong, however, it takes a higher level of skill to even begin to fix it, let along to fix it well enough that you can stop fixing and start using.
(My personal criterion for successful repairs is that you can stop fixing a thing and it will continue to work, rather than requiring that you keep fixing it over and over because you're treating symptoms or catching red herring, not finding the real problem and solving it.)
Jobs' wasn't the only voice telling technology designers that event their best products aren't good ones if they're difficult for people to use who prefer to use computers rather than spend all their time learning how to use them.
He didn't talk about it much at all lately, and most of the fans who talked about how easy he and Apple made it to "use computers" sounded sincere, but naive. The cognoscenti talked about his magnificent contributions or sense of design or elegance or innovation.
Jobs' most important contribution
The tributes (mostly) didn't say that Jobs consistently said in the early days of the PC revolution that PCs had to be easy for normal people to use. They didn't say he was one of the very few people who could get the computer industry to pay attention (at least temporarily) when he told it that every company had to start building things that work the way people think, not the way engineers imagine they do.
Computers and computer interfaces are created by engineers who, according to both professional definitions and the American Psychiatric Association's definition of mental illnesses, don't think in the same way as everyone else.
(Strapped down and forced through a Functional MRI, which maps levels of brain activity to figure out what a person is thinking about and with what part of their brain, an engineer's rain will leave the body through the nose and try to reach high enough to change the position of the plates and bolts on the surface of the machine overhead, which were clearly designed by idiots who couldn't lay out an efficient coverage pattern to save their lives.)
Users know nothing about computers; they shouldn't need to
It used to be common to hear developers make fun of people who couldn't figure out where the On switch was or who called the help desk before checking to make sure all the cords were plugged in or that restarting didn't fix the problem or didn't understand why that joke about the Any key is funny.
Yeah, they're ignorant about things you think are important. So is the president, and he's a lot more successful than you, anyway.
When is the last time you had a hard time figuring out how to use your refrigerator? Or microwave?
How many times have you heard the same rant about how important it is that technology be easy to use? How many classes have you had to go to on usability and psychology and eye-movement studies and reactions to color or shape or why your microwave actually is easy to use even if you can't figure out how to heat anything more complicated than soup or Hot Pockets.
It's not the microwave's fault if you don't know how to cook.
It's the stove's fault. But you don't hear stove designers making fun of you for living on Hot Pockets. They're engineers, too; they'd probably rather have one.
Even really well designed stoves and microwaves won't let you know where the problem lies, though. Microwaves are too fried to talk and the stove would rather spend a little more time listening to you swear at the other appliances before letting you know the Problem Exists Between Keypad and Cook's Apron, which would have been obvious to you if you'd just RTFM.
Even if he didn't talk about it as much recently as in the early days of the PC, Jobs knew that, and tortured the engineers who worked for him until they understood it, too.